Sophia graduated almost three years back and joined a highly reputed multinational company to earn all the pride and privilege of being a Management Trainee. She was exposed to the best in class with all the systems and frameworks laid out to her apparent advantage. Soon life was about getting to work and executing her ideas within the given systemic framework. No sooner did she realize that she was merely a ‘cog-in-the-wheel’, assigned a specific task with minimal freedom. This frustration led her into joining another simple, entrepreneurial venture where frameworks were for pictures on the wall. Freedom, or as the buzzword describes, ‘Empowerment’, was sufficiently intoxicating. Although the space was there she failed to understand the scope of work and limits which were interestingly self-created. And soon she left for another organization that provided sufficient framework with little freedom... She may not be satisfied but yes, life goes on.
The above is possibly a fictitious story of organizations, management and individuals. The turn of events may not necessarily follow the same chronological order but based on what has been witnessed in almost two decades of my experience, this is similar to the Job Cycle of most individuals. Exceptions are there and so are their responses.
Studying organizational cultures, assessing, evaluating and then contextualizing them is not a new thing. A plethora of models, countless literature and numerous sessions on the subject of “Corporate Culture” has led people to gain a very basic understanding of this term. Sadly, often people know what their culture is but it is not very easy to describe the 'corporate character'. The core ideology that defines this corporate character is more than what is beautifully hanging on the walls in immaculate lobbies of large corporations. This realm of the feel-good fluff, often considered to reflect the company culture is a dangerously naïve stance and rather outdated point of view. Today, culture is the foundation on which everything holds and sticks.
Sam Palmisano, IBM
“In the end, whether or not you have a values-driven culture is what makes you a winner or a loser.”
A lot of how people behave, react and do or don’t do, is driven by the prevailing culture which is basically, and in the most simplest forms, driven by the balance between ‘freedom and framework’ The ability of people to work together and solve problems expanses between the ‘free’ space of making empowered decisions to creatively solve the unsolvable and having a structured ‘framework’ that guides them to choose from a range of timeless well defined options as solutions. To further clarify the point we are speaking about, please refer to the matrix below:
An organizations' DNA is deeply woven into the kind of balance an organization is able to provide between freedom and framework. In order to contextualize it, we will begin by first describing the key elements of this model.
An individual’s right! Many people would also like to call it empowerment. Personally, this is much more. It is the space, responsibility and trust that an organization provides to its people and how the employees would like to use it. Gone are the days of Gen X and Gen Y, of individuals waiting to be told what to do and how to do. Let us begin thinking of people as 'Genoids'- They are smart, technologically savvy and linguistically more expressive than the relatively analytical Gen Y. These liberal minded ‘Genoids’ like the freedom to work at their own pace, on their own plans, with their hand-picked team for their self-commitment to targets.
As the word suggests, here we are speaking of systems and processes. This entails the establishment of boundaries and limits often labeled as policies, SOPs and hierarchical limitations. This borders and sketches the playing field restricted with dos and don’ts. A set of ‘tried and tested’ options are often chosen as ‘Best Practices’. A highly sophisticated structure based on complex workings with great respect for consistency versus adaptability and flexibility. There is heavy emphasis on check-list, indicators, various performance measures and metrics to ensure consistency in thought. While there may be love for customer there is fanatic attraction and comfort found in conformity
Now that we have gained a rather fresh perspective to these much spoken about indicators of organizational orientation, let us analyze each quadrant of the model. After all, it is the equation with these two elements that reshapes new age business and ensures alignment for success.
High Freedom Low Framework: Entrepreneurial Oriented
This orientation is highly categorical in organizations that allows for more freedom and relatively lesser framework. These are entrepreneurial, small set-ups where there is parallel focus on survival and growth. Although many large companies and big MNCs speak of this, the fact is that their market dynamics, shareholder structure and sheer size would make it difficult to allow for such a culture. It is ideally cutout for small sized companies that place greater importance on being adaptive and more responsive instead of following SOPs. Indicators keep on changing and performance measures are merely a luxury and feel good factor. Here you will find key principles and values of the business laid out, customers identified and then employees are let loose to 'wow' customers.
The key message is beautifully captured by Joel Manby, CEO Herschend Family Entertainment
“The enthusiasm of the guest experience can never rise any higher than the enthusiasm of your own employees”
This orientation provides its employees with the wonderful opportunity to create, innovate and execute at their own pace. In the absence of well defined Key Performance Indicators and SMART goals, the business operates at the discretion of employees’ willingness to pursue whatever opportunities excite them and ties in to the larger organization vision, in general. This ‘free hand’ offered to employees can also cause confusion to those who have become accustomed to seeking direction and permission. Due to the lack of any semblance of a well defined structure/ framework in place, such organizations are like a giant ball of chaos and confusion- either you can play with it and use it as an opportunity to exercise your creative freedom or sob over its intricate knots with a sense of being lost. For someone who prefers clarity over chaos, an organization that follows this orientation may get easily frustrated.
High Framework and Low freedom: Hierarchical Oriented
Perhaps! Yes this is a general statement that perhaps, most of the people working for big companies would best be able to relate to this. Not to take anything away from government organizations, but this is how many of these may be managed as well. The framework is laid out with clear deliverables. Every employee has a role and that role has set targets which are monitored on a regular basis to assess performance of individuals and the organization as a whole. Such organizations operate as a giant machine with every arm performing its designated task. Here every employee is left feeling like a cog in a wheel to ensure its smooth operation.
It is a 'full-proof' system that is able to identify the slightest deviation within seconds. These are not organizations but 'treadmills.' Even a turtle will have to jog away at the pre-determined speed set. Similarly, the 'tiger' would have no choice but to slow down to the system. You will survive irrespective of whether you are passionate or not; irrespective of how engaged the heart is. The best part of such a culture is the realization that as long as people do not rock the boat and deliver within the framework, their future is secure. Despite tall claims of an empowered culture, the fact is that their framework does not permit such values to be exercised due to the sheer associated dynamics, or it risks loss of tight controls. Every individual needs to operate within the given domain and is interdependent on the next. Hence, centralized decision making is an absolute necessity despite the fast paced market which thrives on flexibility and quick responses.
This type of an organization is ideal for people who like having all the instructions in place and enjoy any environment which does not require them to reinvent the wheel. Growth in such organizations is not a result of professional genius but is often considered a natural progress to reward the number of years an individual has spent in that particular organization. Message to employees: ‘come for work and not to work’
Low Freedom and Low framework: Person Oriented / Ad hoc
If you are exposed to conventional golden management acronyms, then you have probably heard of 'LBDN'. For the benefit of novices, these are mnemonics for Look Busy Do Nothing. A personality driven organization with ‘The Boss’ running the show; such an organizational culture offers neither clarity via a strong structure nor the freedom to pursue any other solution other than the one you are told through micro management. This one powerful individual keeps control of everything and adapts those rules based on convenience, at times even whim. Decisions are made on an ad hoc basis rather abruptly. No one in the team knows what would be acceptable and what wont. This fear and ambiguity leads to a culture that is dominated by fear. One where CYA (cover you A#@#) is the only option.
This uncertainty is further fueled by the fact that the corporate vision is merely this individual’s desire. Hence, the absence of communicating the same, coupled with the lack of a clear and crisp strategy often means that future growth and continuity is at stake, once this individual moves out. However, for our average corporate schmoozer this organization is a corporate paradise- quick rewards and fast growth is guaranteed given the ‘Yes Boss’ attitude. However, the more hardworking and ambitious members of the team are left feeling unmotivated.
At best, the initiative this team would take is to 'wait and watch' for the next command that comes. However, execution is fast, rapid fast, given the fact that you don’t know if these decisions would be active in a weeks’ time or not.
High Freedom and High framework: Disciplined Growth Oriented
This is not an ideal culture nor is it hypothetical. Many speakers, management gurus and experts have defined it in different ways and forms. Jim Collins has rallied this principle in his book, Built to Last under “preserve the core and stimulate progress” and followed by the need for Discipline in his book, Good to Great. Briefly he speaks about disciplined people, disciplined thoughts and finally disciplined actions.
A culture that is high on freedom and high on framework is one that has identified and religiously focuses on its core drivers, principles and agenda. There is no ambiguity in terms of what the organizations wants and how it sees itself achieving it. This knowledge lends the team the belief in what they stand for. It is not a family culture but a cult where individuals are orchestrating together and producing harmony in the form of business results. Conviction with clarity of thought stokes the fire to meet its goals and grow.
Here, even though the framework is high, people are given the space to define and search for excellence in their job. Statistically, researches such as those conducted by “Intelligent Office” in America and Canada support this desire of individuals seeking freedom in terms of their work styles by opting for alternative locations as opposed to office cubicles. With an upward shift in this trend, a surprising 70% people work from alternative work spaces. Coffee shops and libraries have been ranked as an absolute favorite hangout spots to work independently at 28% and 29% respectively. This figure is on the rise as the new generation of ‘freedom craving’ employees search for a more unconventional approach to stimulate creative ideas for a refreshingly new set of challenges that this modern day organization faces.
An opportunity for people to be suffocated by the use of systems and processes is a bare minimum and rewarding and recognizing initiatives that enrich performance is on a high. The focus is on productivity and not activity and all measures and metrics are designed and support the choice of freedom. Are all initiatives successful here? This is where I would borrow from Tom Peters and highlight the need for ‘Rewarding excellent Failures’. If your business has not made any mistake and not failed over the past year, you are merely surviving and you don’t have creative souls coming to work but simply self movable bodies that are able to execute naturally.
Opting for this quadrant as your preferred orientation necessitates lots of maturity and understanding between team members. Trust is a given in this culture and not something they are trying to instill. Decisions are made on principles and not personal likes and dislikes while consistently trying to redefine the future and thinking how the organization would be structured 2 years from today and the freedom and framework required then.
Interestingly, the above four scenarios are not restricted to entire companies. Often departments and functions may end up adopting any of these balances. At the end of the day it is driven by the manager/boss. Although they say a fish rots from the top, there is no hesitation in stating that it is the middle manager that determines the culture. No wonder they say that your culture can eat your strategy for breakfast every morning. It does not matter how flawless a strategy you design, if it is not aligned to your culture the execution of that strategy might be your biggest failure.
Your corporate culture can either be your friend or foe. At the end of the day, it’s not about how well your corporate culture is defined instead how it is truly lived. The values you state versus the practices you encourage. The Freedom / Framework Model does not attempt to categorize your culture on the basis of your corporate values. Any organization has only 4- 6 core values that form its corporate culture, however, this model attempts to provide a holistic understanding of your Corporate Character that is based on the numerous practices inculcated in your organizational DNA. If you have diagnosed any ‘corporate parasites’ in your organizational system that hinder your progress in this demanding economy, this could be a good time to review your organizational and departmental cultures.
*Disclaimer: Sophia is a self-created hypothetical character