The empowerment revolution will not be enforced

Cultivate decentralisation by inviting autonomy instead

At CA’s Agility Services, we’re strong believers in the 12 Failure Modes of Agile Transformation – critical bear traps to be wary of when attempting to change an organisation into a better state, based on a distillation of our combined experience with hundreds of organisations. I’m particularly happy to see that a Failure to Decentralise Control is in there, having seen the impact of moving authority to where the information lives, in faster and fundamentally better decisions.

However, I worry that in our enthusiasm for this, perhaps we’ve oversold the importance of it, while working with organisations who haven’t yet fully unlearned their command and control instincts. Thus I see potential and actual customers enacting Agile Roll Out Plans, instructing areas of their organisation to “Go Forth And Be Agile”, usually on a pre-planned schedule (“It’s May 1st, so today the Small Business Customers Business Unit starts Being Agile”), and instructing their leaders to implement Autonomy and Empowerment in the teams they lead. Or giving the authority to act with empowerment down one tier in the organisation, without transferring the instincts to cascade it.

The organisation is fundamentally telling – or at best, selling – the change.

This fundamentally fails the sniff test that all colleagues apply to management initiatives, as it creates a strong disconnect between the organisation’s words and their actions. Failing the sniff test naturally fosters cynicism and resistance to making the changes in values and behaviours which are needed for the change to be effective, rather than the amplifying intrinsic motivations to change for better. We push the system; it pushes back.

David Marquet expresses the disconnect beautifully in the Turn The Ship Around Workbook:

“You cannot order people to take part in an empowerment program.”

It sounds obvious, and when put as strongly as that – or when trying to instruct a crowd to all be free thinking individuals – it is clear and simple. But for organisations on the learning journey, this comes as a significant plot twist, along with the realisation that this is only the first illustration of a new way of operating for leaders.

So if we cannot drive change with our traditional leadership approaches, how do we bring new (and better) ways of working to our organisations? How do we effectively cultivate decentralisation of control, enacting a shift of the authority out to where the information is?

Even encouragement can bruise the delicate seedlings of autonomy, while simply declaring autonomy for all with an email starting with ‘Henceforth’ then sitting back and hoping that the organisation will change itself is a recipe for stasis; the balance is a fine one and leaders play a critical role in managing that balance.

There are two significant steps in enriching the organisational ground and initiating terraforming.

Firstly, leaders start performing the central role they will pursue through and after the transformation: setting constraints and context.

Leaders will need to provide clarity of vision – fundamentally based on communicating the organisation’s goals, and how local goals holistically support those. This will ensure that everyone is aligned, understands a decision’s context, and the impact of that decision in all directions outward from it.

To not only support the change in decision making structures, but in all matters, part of that vision has to be the need for change; a visceral sense of reality and its tension with the desired state. This tension is what will overcome the ‘system pushes back’ dynamic. This needs to operate at all levels of the organisation, and truly reflect reality, from the boardroom to the lunch queue. One of the most effective initiatives of this had a significant early component of the designated change leader sitting down at random tables in the canteen, and enquiring how the world looked to the people he was sat with.

Leaders will also need to start thinking through what decisions will be devolved to whom, under what circumstances. Essentially this is setting a roadmap for moving decisions up the curve illustrated above, and the process for doing this will also need to move up the curve, collaboration with the delegatees progressively increasing over time. Tools like Delegation Poker can help facilitate these conversations and negotiate the boundaries. A parallel activity to this is developing the competence to take on these decisions; closeness to the information is a necessary but insufficient condition, and in giving up the accountability for decisions, leaders necessarily take on the responsibility for the competence of those making them.

Having prepared the ground fully, a leader is then able to sow the seeds that will actually grow into deep rooted change. Those seeds are invitations. An honest, open invitation to step forward and take the permission that has already been granted, in the safety of an environment that will assign no blame nor instinctively countermand perceived errors. Such a leader knows that taking on decisions is a learning journey, full of mis-steps that can only be perceived and learned from by taking them.

Leader takeaway: Don’t drive empowerment in your organisation. Don’t encourage it. Create a space for it to happen, invite it and step back.


For Martin, agile is a never-ending journey and “... even though some have started it…

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