Leaders who want to see their organizations leap far ahead of their competition are usually deeply involved in any number of employee activities and programs.
That’s understandable, but a high level of involvement can often become counterproductive.
However tempting it can be to have a finger in as many pies as possible, leaders of organizations that truly excel are keenly aware of the importance of authority and thoughtful direction—and, just as important, the value of also allowing others sufficient freedom to try new things and do their jobs as only they know best.
Admittedly, that can be easier said than done.
Challenging Times? Greater Control!
As I mentioned at the outset of this blog, a high level of control may well be many leaders’ default setting. That can be particularly true when an organization faces a specific challenge or is trying to cope with difficult market conditions. The thinking goes, when the going gets tough, a leader needs to take charge more than ever.
Unfortunately, that can often prove to be the least effective strategy. As a telling example, several years ago CSC Germany, a division of the $17 billion international IT consulting and services firm, responded to poor financial performance by boosting control and levels of oversight. The company only continued to struggle. However, when leadership did the opposite—less control and greater employee autonomy—the outcome was a resounding success. The company later implemented the strategy in other areas of the firm, using peer group supervision and in-house coaches instead of a heavy-handed top/down structure. Employee performance and company results blossomed.
A Sense of Ownership
If you peel the onion a little bit, it’s not difficult to understand why CSC—and other organizations that have effectively loosened hierarchical grips—have enjoyed vastly superior performance when employees have greater individual freedom. One obvious benefit is a sense of ownership that derives from autonomy. Employees who are, in effect, trusted to do the right thing naturally feel a greater stake in an organization’s success and respond accordingly.
(Note that that differs from a sense of empowerment—a key distinction. Empowerment implies granting of freedom, like a king generously offering his subjects greater rights. By contrast, autonomy isn’t a “gift”—it’s policy that’s built into an organization’s working philosophy.)
The success that autonomy can bring can be all the more dramatic when coupled with several of the central components of my Anticipatory Organization Model. For instance, one key principle is the essential value of organization-wide everyday innovation. As technology continues to accelerate change in every level of our personal and professional lives, innovation—both in terms of industry-shifting blockbusters as well as everyday innovation—is an organizational imperative.
Consider: Which sort of environment better encourages pursuit of innovation—one where only a few leaders come up with the innovative ideas or another where people have the individual freedom to implement inventive solutions to everyday problems and have a process where they can share their process, product, or service innovation and know their ideas will be considered?
Another component of an anticipatory organization is yet another form of freedom—freedom to fail, and all the better if that failure occurs quickly. A commitment to innovation naturally implies a comfort level with failure—and, if people have the freedom to fail and learn quickly from their missteps, innovation can only benefit.
Somewhat ironically, an organization that affords its employees significant autonomy also builds stronger ties with those employees. Think about it: If you’re an employee who sees the freedom to innovate as a means to further yourself both professionally as well as personally, why would you look elsewhere for long-term employment opportunities?
Every leader on the planet loves success and a competitive advantage. Creating a culture that values continuous innovation and has the freedom to implement inventive solutions to everyday problems, as well as look for and share any game-changers they can see, can accelerate innovation, improve results, and turn rapid change into a competitive advantage.
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