Autonomy in action - school kids

· December 4, 2012

Today I rode the tram to work and was faced with the barbarian horde of school kids going the other way; to their school. After I had managed not be run down and falling of the tracks from them running towards the closing doors of the train, I got an image in my head.

School kids and teacher are excellent examples of command and control vs autonomy in action.

In this blog post I’ll contrast the two models of management and see if there’s any similarities with our normal working conditions.

Command and control

Imagine the whole school going to a boring outing, probably to a place the have been to many times before. To learn stuff that they are not interested in (by now you realize that this is TOTALLY made up - that would NEVER happen in real school. right :)).

For a school with, say, 500 pupils organising that  outing is quite a feat. The teachers needs to be on their toe and make sure that everyone is still with us, going to the right place, ending up there. Finally there they have to make sure that everyone pays attention and don’t wander off. And then going home again…

Quite a feat, as I said. And the teachers will probably be quite tired after that and also feel that they have been doing a lot chicken-herding through out the day.


Now imagine another situation; the school kids going home. That’s 500 pupils going from the school, to a ca 450 different places all over town. For most, that’s something that you want to do and you know the way.

In execution there’s a big difference here; no teachers are involved, every student are expected to know the way (or be picked up by a parent), they can take any route that they find most suitable.

From the outside that is also quite a feat! And it probably looks like chaos when the kids pour out of the school on their way to their individual homes.

What are the teachers doing? Helping some people that needs help, but for the most part they are not focusing on the process at hand. It will be taken care of by the autonomous pupils. The teachers trust them to end up in the right place or ask for help.

How about us?

How do we manage teams or individuals in our business? And why?

Often there’s a lot of micromanagement, command and control taking place at many organisations (that I’ve visited). This results in many layers of management and they have to work a lot to keep the organisation or project together. The more moving parts in the project the more work for the project management.

In other organisations teams and individuals are trusted to end up in the right place, fulfil the goal that have been set. This result in a lot of moving parts that is hard to track and control. But that doesn’t matter since we trust them to do the right thing.

Should they need help they can turn to a “manager” that will guide them and coach them, but preferable not control what they should do.

Imagine create a command and control project for “taking every school kid to his individual home”? That would take for ever and wear the teachers out in no time. Instead we release the imagination and power in letting them find their own way.

But often, especially in big organisations, we fall back to command and control. “It’s just not safe to let them run around doing whatever they want” seems to be the thinking.

No. Not if you don’t trust them.


Nothing new and innovative in here, i’m afraid. Still we fall into the same trap again and again. I’ve even seen agile small companies grow up and become command and control companies. I don’t know if you got anything out of that but I think the picture was pretty striking. I hope you did too.

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