bureaucracy

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Want to increase autonomy in your organization? Consider a freedom / accountability swap


As you walk the halls of your organization and talk to fellow employees, do you ever hear complaints like these?

“I feel stuck because I can’t make decisions on my own.”

“I know what we need to do, but no one will listen.”

“I have little say in how I spend my time each day.”

“I’m waiting for someone to give me approval before I can proceed.”

Most of us know these feelings very well, and most of us have personal experience in what I would call a low autonomy organization like this one.

If autonomy in this sense refers to having the freedom to determine your own actions and behavior, a low autonomy organization is one where decisions are handed down from above and employees are expected to follow instructions, rules, or guidelines that limit their ability to think or make decisions for themselves. The end result is often a stifling bureaucracy where people are afraid or unwilling to take risks and managers wonder why nothing ever gets done.

Not only does this sort of environment sap morale and reduce efficiency and innovation, but it also makes it incredibly difficult for the organization to attract young, talented employees who have grown up in the freedom-based culture of the Internet and demand more autonomy than most organizations today are structured to provide.

But even if changing your overall top-down, bureaucratic corporate culture is beyond your control, you may be able to increase autonomy in your own corner of the organization through an informal process I refer to as The Freedom / Accountability Swap.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap

The Freedom / Accountability Swap is a simple, yet very powerful way for individual managers and employees in traditional control-based organizations to “think locally” and create islands of autonomy within their own teams by setting up freedom and accountability as a transaction to be negotiated.

The swap is not designed to reinvent the organization or management structure overnight, but instead is more of a stealth effort that allows you to build elements of a high autonomy culture without the core management philosophy of the organization being visibly threatened. In this sense, it is a relatively “safe” experiment for traditional organizations to try.

The hope is that if enough islands of autonomy are created within an organization, and the groups where autonomy is high are more passionate, motivated, and successful than those where autonomy is low, then the entire culture of the organization could become more autonomous over time.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap is based on a simple equation, born out of my experience working at open source technology leader Red Hat (you can read the full story here), that looks like this:

freedom + accountability = a culture of autonomy

In other words, in order to create a high autonomy culture, any increase in employee freedom must be matched by an increase in employee accountability for the actions and decisions they make with their new found freedom.

Give more freedom. Ask for more accountability in return. Simple!

So how would the Freedom/Accountability Swap work? Here’s one practical way to get started:

1. INITIATE THE SWAP Once a year, perhaps as part of an existing yearly performance or compensation review process, each employee and manager would schedule a meeting in which they would discuss that year’s Freedom/Accountability Swap (some organizations may want to do this conversation more often than 1x per year).

2. SHARE IMPRESSIONS Ahead of the meeting, both the employee and manager fill out a simple survey. An employee would report where they feel they have a lot of freedom and where they have little freedom. They would also report where they feel they are highly accountable for the results of their work and where they are less accountable. The manager would complete the same exercise, and employee and manager would share their answers with each other prior to the meeting.

3. MAP THE GAPS At the meeting, the manager and employee each share their impressions of where they see things differently when it comes to freedom and accountability. For example, are there projects, tasks, or deliverables where:

  • the employee thinks they don’t have enough freedom and the manager feels they are less accountable?
  • the manager thinks the employee has a lot of freedom, but the employee doesn’t agree?
  • the employee thinks they are highly accountable but the manager doesn’t agree?
  • the manager thinks they are highly accountable, but the employee doesn’t agree?
  • both sides perceptions of freedom and accountability match well?

As they have the conversation, they “map the gaps” on a sheet like the one below so they can see where to focus their discussion:

The conversation should not just focus on where there are perception gaps, but should also cover the places where freedom and accountability are already the highest. In places where both are high, what is the reason why the “swap” works better? In places where the employee perceives freedom as low and the manager perceives accountability as low, what could be done to grant more freedom to the employee and what could the manager ask for in return?

Be sure that accountability is looked at from both the manager’s perspective and the employee’s perspective. It is just as important to discuss whether the manager is being held accountable as it is the employee—accountability works both ways—this is at the heart of the “swap.”

4. THE SWAP At the end of the conversation, the manager and employee should analyze each key project, task, or deliverable they’ve discussed and come to an agreement about what each side can offer that will increase freedom AND accountability for both sides.

5. REVIEW Over the course of the year, the employee and manager can use the language they developed in the swap as part of an ongoing conversation. This language may make it easier to discuss freedom / accountability issues as they arise in daily work.

Some organizations may want to take the Freedom / Accountability Swap even further beyond individual manager and employee relationships. It could easily be modified to work as a tool to create better relationships between groups in an organization as well as within groups. Leaders representing each group could have a similar dialogue, resulting in a Freedom/Accountability swap that improved the working relationships between these teams and increased autonomy on both sides.

Sound interesting? If you get a chance to try out a Freedom / Accountability Swap in your organization, I’d love to hear how it goes.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap was originally designed by Chris Grams, Susanne Ramharter, Laurence Lock Lee, Josh Allan Dykstra, Aaron Anderson as a “management hack” for the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX). You can read the full hack here. This post was originally written for the Human Capital Institute and is published here.

The open source way: designed for managing complexity?


This week I finally got a chance to sit down and digest IBM’s latest Global CEO Study, newly published last month and entitled Capitalizing on Complexity. This marks the fourth study IBM has done (they complete them once every two years), and I’ve personally found them to be really useful for getting out of the weeds and looking at the big picture.

This report is based on the results of face-to-face meetings with over 1500 CEOs and other top leaders across 60 countries and 30+ industries. These leaders are asked all sorts of questions about their business challenges and goals, then IBM analyzes the answers and segments the respondents to isolate a group of high-performing organizations they call “standouts.” The standouts are then further analyzed to find out how they are addressing their challenges and goals differently than average organizations.

As a quick summary (but don’t just read my summary, go download the study for free), IBM found a big change this year. In the past three studies, leaders identified their biggest challenge as “coping with change.” This year, they identified a new top challenge: “complexity.”

If you’ve been reading marketing collateral or web copy from your vendors over the past year (someone must read that stuff…) this will come as no surprise to you. How many things have you read that start with something like: “In our increasingly complex world…” or “In the new deeply interconnected business landscape…” If the marketing folks are saying it, it must be true.

But I digress. Here’s IBM’s punch line:

[Read the rest of this post on opensource.com]

Love, hate, and the Wikipedia contributor culture problem


Last fall, a group of researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) released a study showing an abrupt leveling off in the number of editors and edits to Wikipedia, starting in about 2007.

There is a great summation of the findings in a set of posts by Dr. Ed H Chi, Lead Scientist at the PARC Augmented Social Cognition group here, here, here, and here.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few months about what might be causing the slowing rate of contributions, as have many others. I particularly liked Niel Robertson’s post last week on the Enterprise Irregulars site.

Niel’s thesis is that Wikipedia has failed to continue to develop innovative ways to motivate its community, falling behind as other communities and companies have implemented more creative new techniques. Niel goes on to identify seven types of motivation for crowdsourcing (yes, I still dislike that word) efforts, of which he says Wikipedia is only using a couple.

I think he is on to something. But Wikipedia is operating at a scale that dwarfs almost every other crowdsourcing effort in history. It takes a massive bureaucracy of editors and administrators to keep the whole thing going.

And if traditional bureaucracies (like those in governments and large companies) tend to stifle innovation, what happens in a bureaucracy where the bureaucrats aren’t getting paid and aren’t getting any recognition for their efforts?

From my point of view, this is Wikipedia’s next great challenge:

How does it convince the world to love and recognize its contributors?

[Read the rest of this article on opensource.com]

Five ways to strengthen your company’s immune system


I’m not usually a germophobe, but the last few months I’ve been walking around opening doors with my elbows and washing my hands constantly. I’ve been freaked out by the constant updates on Facebook about what my friends/friends’ kids have come down with now. So far, my immune system has held up pretty well, but I always worry that H1N1 is only a doorknob away.

These are trying times for corporate immune systems too. The economic meltdown has exposed corporations to all sorts of risks they don’t deal with in the regular course of business. Many corporate immune systems have failed, putting millions of people out of work. It begs the question: how resilient is your company? And how can you make your corporate immune system stronger?

I got to thinking about this corporate immune system concept after reading the new book The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It by Joshua Cooper Ramo. In this fantastic book, Ramo (former foreign editor of Time Magazine, now a foreign policy/strategy consultant at Kissinger Associates) offers his thoughts on what we as a society need to do to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Ramo talks a lot about the idea of creating a stronger global immune system. Here’s what he means:

“What we need now, both for our world and in each of our lives, is a way of living that resembles nothing so much as a global immune system: always ready, capable of dealing with the unexpected, as dynamic as the world itself. An immune system can’t prevent the existence of a disease, but without one even the slightest of germs have deadly implications.”

Ramo presents this in idea in the context of how we protect ourselves from a scary world– terrorists, rogue nations, nuclear proliferation, and all that, but the concept applies well to the corporate world as well– tough competitors, fickle customers, shrinking budgets– we corporate folks have our own demons.

So how do we shore up the ol’ immune system? Ramo refers to the philosophy of building resilience or “deep security” into the organization. Continue reading

Gary Hamel: Open Source is one of the greatest management innovations of the 21st century


My colleague John Adams, reporting from the World Business Forum in New York, wrote on Twitter yesterday that during his speech, management guru Gary Hamel called open source one of the greatest management innovations of the 21st century (coverage of Gary’s speech here and here).

Gary_Hamel

Management guru Gary Hamel

I love it. Gary Hamel is a hero of mine, and many consider him one of the greatest business minds on the planet. I’ve written about him, well, too much (start here, here, and here), and I follow him via his website, his non-profit called MLab, and his Wall Street Journal blog.

I knew Gary was familiar with open source after reading his book The Future of Management (one of the top ten books behind Dark Matter Matters). He spends five pages (205-210 in the hardcover) discussing open source and at one point says the following:

The success of the open source software movement is the single most dramatic example of how an opt-in engagement model can mobilize human effort on a grand scale… It’s little wonder that the success of open source has left a lot of senior executives slack-jawed. After all, it’s tough for managers to understand a production process that doesn’t rely on managers.

Here’s his analysis of why the model works so well:

Continue reading

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