Freehold Engagement

rent or buyHave you ever noticed how small children are “freeholders”?

They engage with everything; they are insatiably curious, inventive and creative. They have no sense of failure, they just learn. They approach whatever they are doing on their own terms. They buy into whatever they do.

And then – they start school, and begin to learn failure, and to measure themselves against someone else’s criteria. When we were in the industrial era, this was understandable – we needed compliance and capability more than creativity. A good career could be carved out of learning a fixed set of skills.

We rapidly sacrifice our curiosity for well rewarded compliance. The further we go, the more “rent” we pay. We move from being freeholders in our lives to tenants. The rent we pay is what we give up to meet the requirement placed upon us by our erstwhile landlords. Those who we allow to assess us.

Up until the mid 1990’s, children’s IQ and creativity increased with each generation, but at that point diverged. IQ continues to increase, but creativity is declining. There are many arguments as to why this might be, but any primary school teacher will probably tell you it’s because they have to teach to the test. They are measured, assessed and rewarded on their classes ability to perform prescribed tasks. Compliance over creativity. Welcome to appraisals.

In the times we are facing, this is dangerous, as well as dispiriting. Machine learning and AI are really, really good at compliance, but not breadth of curiosity.

An algorithm designed to learn about traffic flow patterns doesn’t start up one morning wondering about space travel (but we do).

Algorithms have phenomenal, scary speed and depth, but no instinct for exploration.

Education is different from learning. Education is what we do to others, learning is what we do to ourselves. Education is standardised, measured based on compliance and assessed through qualification. Learning is individual, unique, and. left to its own devices, insurgent and disruptive.

Rented cars are never washed by those who rent them. Tenants expect the landlord to fix the leaky gutters. It’s easy for employees to delegate their training and development to their employer.

The problem with leases however is that they are for a fixed period, after which all rights return to the landlord. The same is becoming true of most conventional jobs and careers.


We rethink the relationship. Treat those we work with as freeholders, there by choice and rent free. Expected and trusted to their best for those they work with, because they can and because they are moved to, not because they are told to.

I was told by a mentor many years ago that if you trust people, they’ll let you down, but that if you don’t, they’ll do you down.

As machine learning and AI start to really roll, compliance based tasks will be history, but those based on curiosity, commitment and creativity – all the hallmarks of engagement – will both flourish, and be in high demand.

The last thing we will want is an organisation full of tenants.

Richard Merrick a coach / catalyst specialising in agile approaches to strategy, innovation and operations. 


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