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02nd August 2015

Freedom

12th April 2015 | Posted in Uncategorized

I remember when they took my father’s driving license away. My sister and I were delighted, he was despondent. For my father, this was more than a common sense response to him being 84, this was a blow to his pride. Perhaps even more important, it was a blow to his freedom. The way he saw it, thereafter he was a passenger. Thereafter, he wasn’t in control.  There was always a little less of him after that, at least in his own mind.

I was reminded of this the other day when I was thinking about entrepreneurs, values, and self-driving cars.

ManilaAs part of my flirtation with teaching at Business School, I spent a couple of years supporting an MBA elective on entrepreneurship. Researching the attributes of alumni who had gone on to start their own businesses I found an unsurprisingly recurrent theme around freedom. The freedom to make their own decisions,  clearly, but equally the freedom to come and go as they pleased at work. Almost universally they spoke about the freedom to play golf on a Friday afternoon, to walk the dog in the morning, to get to the school plays and sports days. Equally universally, this was a freedom honoured more often in the breach than in the observance. Those that had chosen an entrepreneurial path were driven by their occupation and finding the freedom from that drive to do other things was no easier, often harder, than it was for the wage slaves.

Given my history in managing my own business it’s no surprise that freedom, or autonomy, should be one of my own values.  For anyone who’s ever read Dan Pink, it’s also no surprise that each of us would want the same and the interesting reflection at work is about what expectations from the business and individuals might be about how this is defined. Some might wish that subordinates would ‘step up’ or take more freedom. Some might wish that superiors would step back or give more freedom. In my experience most managers want freedom from those above them and control of those they manage. ‘Freedom in a framework’ is a great  philosophy but the tension is always about where the boundaries lay. For me, at least part of that tension comes from another value, Impact, where the opportunity to work in a business with the budget and scope to achieve more for a greater number of people is worth giving up some of the autonomy I enjoyed in managing my own small firm.

And so to self-driving cars. I think my experience is that the sense of freedom is almost more important than the freedom itself. My father was not really less free because the authorities wouldn’t let him drive but he certainly felt it. I wonder whether he would have regarded a robot car as something that allowed him freedom because it kept him independently mobile or robbed him of his freedom because he no longer had the wheel. I suspect it would have been the latter. It will be interesting to see how we feel about it when the machine that has always been marketed as facilitating freedom suddenly takes at least some of the sense of that freedom away.

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