You say your employees have autonomy, then why is everything so difficult, why are they frustrated and why do change efforts seem to fizzle away? Find out how culture and grey areas are blocking your individual employees and degrading team performance.
Some of the major issues in any form of communication are blind spots and differences in perception and experience. Ask managers whether they believe in autonomy for their staff and most will tell you ‘of course - as far as the work or project allows’. Then ask the staff and they will most often tell you that they have very little autonomy, they feel that they are given individual little tasks as opposed to responsibility for a specific work product. There are many reasons for this, but the increasing desire to industrialize services into efficient factories, where one person on the ‘production line’ can easily be replaced by another is a major factor.
Of course the amount of autonomy is always dependent on the type of work product being done - the smaller the product, the less autonomy can be ‘delegated’ to the employee. An interesting paradox is often to be found: the attempt to standardize or automate complex processes leads to vast, undefined grey areas that are not defined. Most often those grey areas remain “knowingly unseen” management knows that there are swamps of complicated workarounds for outdated systems, territorial infighting, lack of resources and so on. But it is just too tedious to really solve them. These are the situations where managers will explicitly or implicitly delegate accountability by telling staff to “deal with it”, “solve it” , etc. - in order for the system not to break down, it’s then up to the employees to fill these grey areas through initiative, collaboration and creativity. So, while the routine tasks are regulated to the point of absolute boredom, critical junctions and interfaces are sometimes not regulated at all. It is an organizational version of the well known cartoon:
You only have to substitute the formulas on the board with some process-flows to have a perfect match.
The proposed solution aims to provide a “reality check” for Management 1.0, which will show where more or less autonomy is experienced by the employees, as well as where some more autonomy could be implemented and what steps could be taken to achieve that.
The solution aims to 'unclog' the pipes and allow more energy, flexibility and autonomy to flow, thus facilitating more empowerment of employees, better processes and less waste of time and efforts.
It begins by determining where the clogs are, by looking at work products and determining their constraints, or Circles of Hell. These are classified in three main areas:
Having both management and employees think about these questions concretely instead of the generalizations we all normally use can show the current state of affairs as well as potential areas for more autonomy. It will also help to make clear where the often bemoaned ‘lack of initiative’ has its origins. For most areas of (larger) organizations today, autonomy is a fiction that management holds on to because it ‘is the thing to have’. A Reality Check can go a long way to showing how much autonomy is, or is not actually in place.
Focusing on the Job-description rather than “my manager lets me.....” takes some of the pressure off managers and employees both, while providing a (fairly) accurate picture of the situation and a frame of reference for future changes. It can also be used to:
- measure management - for instance setting performance goals to raise the autonomy level by one notch throughout the department/division. Or contests who can raise their levels the most.
- get ideas for process improvement from the employees - by thinking about increasing their own autonomy, both engagement and productivity will automatically improve as well.
This hack can show where time and energy is wasted because of fuzzy expectations, politics and infighting, grey and undefined areas that require repeated do-overs and have remloyees running in circles.
For example: the folowing graph shows the results of one such experimental survey with a pilot group:
These are the results of a survey of 8 people, all working on similar types of complexWork Products. The colored lines show the results per Work Product, with more than one person reporting per Work Product. It is interesting to note that:
- The aspects of circle 1) Legal Requirements, Regulations and Standards and Approvals are generally rather low
- while the aspects of 2) Culture (Going in Circles, Discuss, Approve, Repeat) and 3) Grey areas (Each case a project, Unclear Responsibilities and I do it my way) are all rather high.
- Interesting is also the correlation between 'I do it My Way' and 'Written Guidelines'
The follow-up Workshop showed a number of areas that the group can work on to provide more structure where it is helpful, while identifying the major Cultural and Grey Area issues that were frustrating and causing lower performance. The group is currently working on making the changes they can, and gathering data to present the other issues to management.
It's best to start with a pilot group and to have some general idea of their work products and oputput.
- Give the teams short introductions into the process and the questionnaire, explaing what possible work products might be
- Have team members fill out questionaire - if possible, each person should do a complete questionaire each for 2-3 work products. The groups manager should also do the questionaire for 2-3 of the main work products of the team.
- Evaluate results according to work products.
- Present the results to the team in Workshop 1 where:
- Results per Work Product are explained
- The relationships between the questions are explained Circles of Hell
- Use solution oriented questions and methods (Wailing wall, future perfect, scaling dance, etc.) to find areas that
- are non negotiable (legal requirements, standards)
- areas employees or group can change
- and areas that require escalation to achieve change
Steps 1-4 can be done within a few week
Step 5 ought to be about 3-4 weeks and include some informal feedback sessions
Step 6 can take place between 6 and 8 weeks after the start of the project. If necessary, repeat Workshop and steps 3-6.
The idea of the workshops is to:
- let people whine a bit
- acknowledge their expertise - make them feel heard
- admit that some things cannot be changed, or only with difficulty
- get them to think of ideas and possibilities
- get them to implement the changes
- make it feel like a bottom-up force of change
Thanks in particular to Chris Grams and Josh Allan Dykstra for their feedback and help to brainstorm some of the underlying ideas.