A crisis shows us how autonomy works

The horrible events in Brussels are still fresh and slowly business is picking up it’s usual pace again. What strikes me in how we deal with crisis situations like this is the capability we have to organise ourselves despite the unusual or unknown context we’re in.


In a non-crisis situation, we are used to take decisions according to a predefined process. Conscious or subconscious, we ask our co-workers for advice, we look for information to support our decision and the bigger the impact of the decision, the more people we involve in our decsion. In work situations, this leads to various governance organs like committees, program boards and recurring review meetings to be set up. We do this because we are afraid to take the wrong decision and we believe having more opinions can lead to less risk. In most business situations, it is considered a bad practice to decide before consulting others.


In a crisis situation there is no time to consult others. People work outside of their usual governance structure and take and execute decisions autonomously. Brussels-Nord train stations was transformed in a matter of hours in a well-organised safe zone. There were no pre-made signs showing you the new entries and exists. There was no RFP to decide who would supply the signage. Probably there wasn’t even a management meeting to decide if we would use the left side as an entry and the right side as an exit or the other way around. What I saw was self-printed A3 sheets cleary indicating the exit. They were attached to the walls with Scotch tape and probably photocopied on a local copier. It is very likely that this was an initiative of someone who saw the problem, had the idea for a solution and executed it. All in full autonomy, all without governane structure.


The learning for me is that when people have autonomy, they are capable of much more efficient execution than when they have to work in a governance structure. In business, we should give people who execute the work much more autonomy instead of relying on opinions of others who will not do the job themselves.

edit: If you want to read an in-depth story of how this works in real life, read this blogpost on Brussels Airlines social media handling after the events in Brussels.

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