Most of my clients are founders or leaders of high-growth start-up companies, so I get to see their evolution along that path. Eventually most of them experience a tension. On the one hand they need their teams to take on more responsibility and ownership over projects and initiatives. At the same time, granting autonomy requires letting go of control, and trusting that the results will happen.
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The issue is not just in start-ups. Every organization must calibrate the degree to which they govern their employee’s behavior with controlling management or give them the autonomy to make decisions on their own. The most successful companies tend to have fewer rules and more latitude for decision-making by individuals – but they don’t accomplish that in a vacuum. Being successful at granting latitude can fail mightily and lead to chaos when it is provided in the absence of enough transparency and accountability.
Some of the most striking examples of creativity by empowered employees are found in the customer service area. It’s easy to see why – that’s where organizations and outsiders intersect – and members of the public promote their experiences – good and bad. (Thanks Yelp!)
Happy (and angry) Customers Talk!
A Reddit user called MaskedKoala shared a story of how Capital One solved his unusual problem. When he complained that he couldn’t access his account online because of the broken key on his keyboard they sent him a new keyboard. That wasn’t in the employee handbook, but understanding the strategic goal of customer service, and having the autonomy to innovate led to that decision. It may seem an unusual choice on the part of the Capital One employee. There were other ways to solve the customer’s problem. But MaskedKoala is probably now a customer for life, always opting to use Capital One over their competitors when the choice arises.
Increasing the Odds of Innovation
When leaders resist relinquishing control, they are focused on the possible downsides – a failed outcome, missed deadline, etc. The leader imagines a particular way of accomplishing something, and worries that if an employee does things differently, they will fail.
But, for any given goal or result, there are usually innumerable ways to accomplish it. Although the leader has one method in his head, he – or any one person – cannot possibly conceive of every way. When we dictate the method, micromanage the process, or define the universe of possible ways to respond, we are assuming that those many alternative approaches are all inferior to our own imagined method.
That assumption is deeply flawed.
Yes, some of the alternative methods may be inferior. But if one of them would be better, more creative, or effective – and the employee thinks of it – we have imposed an inferior option on the process. We’ve also deprived the organization of the possible innovated improvement. Given the vast number of possible ways to do most things, the odds are that we are losing tons of creativity with our “my way” bias.
This doesn’t apply to everything. Some routine functions benefit from strictness. (The methodology for how to make a Big Mac™ is not and should not be optional.)
Data show that the more empowered employees are, the better the results they produce. But given the risk of failures and mayhem, what are the conditions that make it possible to grant autonomy to employees? The answer takes us back to strategy.
Employee empowerment succeeds where there is strategic alignment. What does that mean?
By sharing the strategy and its logic, leaders can set the stage for a deep and broad understanding of the rationale behind the company’s plans. It starts with defining the macro goals and digging into thinking and documenting the theory of how to achieve them. That strategy should dictate the performance metrics for everyone. Those characteristics create both alignment to strategy and accountability for its success.
Without that kind of comprehensive plan and transparency, employees lack the context to make key decisions. Moreover, without that context, performance metrics tend to be shallow, and to force team-members to consider gaming the system to get the metrics – rather than to do great work within the strategy.
Once you have done that thinking and planning, include your entire team in it. Ensure they understand the principles guiding the strategy, and fully grasp the logical connections and relationships between all parts of the company. With that understanding their work will be guided by the strategy and its principles – and they will also understand the logic informing the metrics by which they will be assessed.
This works. The greater the alignment between the macro thinking and the people and functions of the organization, the greater the amount of autonomy you can grant.
A Great Example
One company that is known for having done this successfully is Swedish company, Spotify. They embrace the notion of working hard on alignment and then granting the autonomy to teams to innovate. Although they have an unusual organizational structure, at its core, everything drives toward individuals and teams deeply understanding the strategy – and having accountability that’s tied to it. With that in place, autonomy is possible. In Spotify, “[a] leader’s job is to figure out the right problem and communicate it, so that squads can collaborate to find the best solution.”
There are ancillary benefits to high alignment and high autonomy. One of the strongest reasons that employees feel burnout is because they lack control over their work. The corrective is greater autonomy – whether over the hours and place of work, or, over the way that work is executed. That self-determination is so critical that survey data from CitiGroup suggested that many employees would theoretically take up to a 20% pay cut in exchange for greater control over how they work.
How can you expand your team’s autonomy? Start with the building blocks of alignment: a clear, logical strategy, metrics that flow out of it, and constant communication and education about it. Then experiment. Let your team surprise you!