Fixed, Flexible, and Freestyle: A Framework for Decision Making

Perhaps you’ve enjoyed participating in or teaching a Junior Achievement course in the past? Junior Achievement is a not for profit organization that offers learning programs for children in over 100 countries. It has been doing its thing for 100 years and currently serves more than 12 million aspiring youth annually. The organization boasts several hundred thousand living graduates of their programs. They are making a significant contribution to the youth of the world and their organization is considered an exemplar of non-profits. The educational programs of Junior Achievement revolve around introducing entrepreneurial ideas to participants. Students learn about basic business principles and develop this knowledge with hands on experience. The impact Junior Achievement is delivering is optimistically preparing youth for employment and entrepreneurship. A core piece of the program’s learning is to build belief in students that they can be positive contributors to society and their communities.

I enjoyed teaching several sessions to high school students years ago. I did this as volunteer work outside of my work day. I joined JA while I was operating a business of my own with the desire to share what little I had learned to that point with youth. I was impressed with the freedom and autonomy that JA offered. With little structure and training, we were cut loose to teach business concepts to students. Operating across 100 countries located on six continents can’t be easy. The structure of Junior Achievement is managed through a network of affiliated organizations across the countries in which they operate. Maintaining control and consistency of a brand and product should be monumentally difficult goals for an organization of this size. How do they do it? Leaders within Junior Achievement steer their organization using a three step framework that follows the mantra: Fixed, Flexible, Freestyle. Decisions are broken down into these three categories.

Fixed decisions are those which are deemed mission critical. No deviation from the established practice may be made in areas deemed as Fixed. Fixed means that this is the way we do things. Period. It may relate to things like branding or age of children supported. Decisions related to the core values of the organization are if not set in stone, very difficult to change. Fixed decisions are, effectively, not decisions at all. It’s checking the circumstances against the manual and implementing a predetermined action. These can be handled quickly and efficiently by those on the front lines of the organizations. Little training is needed to be offered to handle these types of decisions. Here’s the operational manual, have at it.

Flexible decisions are those where some discretion is delegated down throughout the organization. This may involve decisions that take into account regional differences. Curriculum may be modified in order to make the material more meaningful for participants based on where they live. Youth in different parts of the world will be able to better relate to information that connects their lived experiences with their potential futures. Flexible decision making authority is delegated down from the executive of the organization to each subsequent level. Regions and operational areas of JA are assigned flexible decision making authority over areas where they are best suited to make decisions. Flexible decisions gives those with the best understanding of current circumstances the power to act in the best interests of the organization.

The final area of decision making for Junior Achievement is Freestyle. Freestyle means full discretion over the decision area is delegated with no constraints. Areas open to freestyle decisions have no restrictions around them. Those with this authority are fully empowered to decide as they see fit based on the specific circumstances in which they find themselves. Freestyle decision making is allocated to those with extensive experience and understanding in a given area. It’s not available to everyone in the organization. Freestyle decision making responsibility must be earned. Deep and rich experience earns extended decision making authority. It’s not necessarily a responsibility afforded based on one’s rank but on knowledge of the institution’s operating capabilities and program philosophy.

The key application of this framework lies both in making the boundaries of fixed, flexible, freestyle clear and communicating this consistently throughout the organization. The Fixed, Flexible, Freestyle framework is an essential part of training leadership, management, and staff throughout the organization. It’s a way to be both consistent and agile. The core values of the organization are held dear and direction maintained while freedom and creativity may be exploited to support grass roots efforts as they are distributed across a wide and varied geographic area. The framework provides guidance and direction as well as providing empowerment and autonomy. The framework is taught from early orientation and reinforced at all levels of JA.

Those within the organization have been taught the three kinds of decisions that arise. They have some sense of what has been assigned to them. They can, therefore, either recognize that a decision falls into one of the three categories and they do or don’t have authority to execute. When faced with a decision point, they can ask what kind of decision is this? Is it fixed, flexible, or freestyle? If it is fixed, do I know what the organizational policy is? If not, do I know where to go to determine the organizational policy? If it is flexible or freestyle, is it over an area which they have been afforded authority? If it isn’t, then they know to try to seek input and direction from someone else prior to making a decision. If it is an area over which they are empowered to act, then they can move forward with confidence. It pulls people into the cause and gives them a sense of ownership over their efforts in some areas.

Do you have a similar framework to help distribute responsibility for decision making in your workplace? How much influence over decision making do you have? Are there flexible or even freestyle decisions that you’re making on behalf of your organization? Do you think that more flexible and freestyle authority for deciding impacts your work satisfaction positively? How does your organization help staff recognize the distinction between these types of decisions? With clarity around a decision responsibility framework like fixed, flexible, and freestyle, a business is able to delegate decision making while ensuring the most flexibility to meet the demands of the day while maintaining accountability.