Exercising Agency: What Is Agency?

The following is the first in a series of posts further exploring questions and concepts that emerged during the book launch for Exercising Agency.

A question that has emerged several times as I have presented information related to my book and the research that supports it is, “What is agency?” Given the title of the book, agency is a pretty fundamental and important concept. I try to lay out here in more detail a definition of the concept of agency, and why it is important to the research.

The words we use to describe concepts is incredibly important. Our word choices shape not just the meaning we intend to convey, but also the manner in which that meaning is interpreted by the recipient. Using a term like “agency” represents, for me, a very specific and nuanced concept about how people interact within their organizations. The word has a number of potential meanings, however, so being clear about the intent underlying how it is being used becomes fairly essential.

For the most part, when we hear the term “agency” we think of someone that does something for somebody else. The most common use in our everyday lives is a firm that provides services to other organizations or individuals, for example an “advertising agency”, a “placement agency” or a “real estate agency.”

In legal contexts, “agency” means something close to this, but at the same time is also a little bit different. The concept of a real estate agency is a useful one in making this distinction. In the previous example, the real estate agency—and the other examples—are used to describe the firm providing the service. Employed by that firm are people called real estate “agents.” When we hire a real estate agent, we are engaging them to sell our house on our behalf. They act for us, as our representative, and are expected to negotiate the best agreement possible for us in representing our interests. In a legal context, we are the “principal” and they are the “agent.” The principal-agent relationship extends the power of the principal to the agent, where commitments made by the agent are binding on the principal. A key concept here is the degree to which the principal controls the actions of the agent.

This idea of principal and agent is the essence of “agency theory,” which has been the basis of a lot of research in organizational development and operations. Agency theory explores what is referred to as the “principal-agent problem”, in which the principal and agent, while in a relationship with each other, also have their own interests that they are also pursuing. So, for our real estate agent, a question we have to ask is whether their sell recommendation for our house is the best deal we are going to get, whether they just want their commission for as little effort as possible, or if it might further some other motive.

The meaning of “agency” employed within my book, however, is slightly different yet again. The term comes from philosophy and sociology, and expresses some important concepts about freedom, will and self-determination. In this context, the focus on agency is less on doing something for someone else (although this can be a factor) so much as understanding the degree to which individuals have the capacity to act independently and make their own free choices. Someone who can be said to act with agency is someone whose actions are self-motivated and directed, rather than being subject to constraint. These constraints could be imposed by others, or by the processes and structures of the organization they work within.

In the context of my book, the agency being exercised is that of the project shaper, the person charged with championing the initiation of a project. The idea of project shaper was one that was universally present, at least informally, within every organization I researched. How this role was performed, however, varied considerably, and this is the focus of the book.

For some organizations, the role of project shaper was almost entirely constrained by the processes that existed the organization. In these instances the actions and requirements of the process determined which projects got initiated, and how this occurred. In other organizations, political forces within the organization strongly shaped the project initiation process. In these instances, the actions—and the agency—of the project shaper were largely constrained by the political influence and actions (or neglect) of others.

In a few organizations, however, the most significant influence on decision making effectiveness was the degree to which the person performing the project shaper role acted autonomously, making their own choices and taking their own actions. In other words, effectiveness was a product of the agency of the individual. It was a product of their being willing (and able) to freely act, to set their course and make their own choices about how to guide the project from idea to initiation. The ability to do so was less about the structure of the organization, and more about their abilities and capacity as an individual.

It is this idea of agency that proved the most important and essential concept in the research that led to the book. It was a key determinant in how project initiation decisions were made in a significant number of organizations, but varied in how it was applied. For some participants, agency was the sole influence decision making effectiveness. For others, the exercising of agency was able to compensate for inadequacies and political constraints and challenges within their organizations. And in the rare instances where there actually was effective process in place, agency was constrained as participants voluntarily gave up their capacity to act independently in favour of a consistent, uniform and valued approach.

In performing the project shaper role, it can be argued that a person is acting on behalf of another, and working to further the interests of the organization. In my research, this was unquestionably the case. What was particularly important in how participants exercised agency was that they did so not to benefit themselves, but to ensure that a good decision was made on behalf of the organization. It is not the power of the individual, or the idea of a principal-and-agent relationship, that is key here. Agency is the degree to which project shapers are able and willing to independently act to get a project approved, working within, around or despite the structure and politics of their organization. What makes agency such a powerful concept is the idea that we as individuals can and do make a meaningful difference. Outside of power, politics and process, it is our own sense of self and willingness to make choices that makes the most significant difference.

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