Infrastructure for Dynamic Leadership
In peoples’ private lives they are naturally responsible for ’everything’. For their kids, their homes, their economy and for putting food on the table every day. People are used to being accountable. When something needs fixing, they just fix it. When they need help or advice, they go get it.
It is an interesting paradox that at work, for most people, in most companies, they are to some extent treated like irresponsible children. Their freedom and authority to act on what they see is needed is severely limited. They are supposed to ask for permission or wait for someone else to ‘get their act together’. This profoundly impacts job satisfaction and stress levels as well as how much ‘mileage’ the company gains from each employee.
Let us once again listen in on a typical conversation among people in a company that is well on its way to unlocking this huge ‘sleeping asset’.
“I’ve just been chatting to the boss. According to him, our quality problems have practically disappeared.” Walter, the new sales manager, sat down in the lunch room next to Adam, the manager in charge of quality control. “I asked why, and he said I should ask you.”
“Well,” said Adam, “people seem to have finally got the message that quality is not the sole responsibility of the quality control department.”
“You mean people didn’t understand that before? I heard you’ve been crusading out there like a bloody missionary for years already. So why now?”
“The short version is, we finally have an infrastructure in place that can handle that kind of responsibility. It all began with those Strategic Dialogues we had with the boss, remember?
“Give me the longer version, please.”
“Okay. Imagine this scenario. One of the guys in production spots something that does not work. In the old days, what did he or she do, do you think?”
“Probably talked to their manager.”
“Right. And then what?”
“That manager, being a bottleneck by definition, his desk crammed with problems floating up through the hierarchies and from left and right in the workflow – he most likely dumped the problem at the bottom of his overflowing in-tray.”
Adam chuckled. “You got it. Then, when it finally makes its way to the top of the in-tray, he needs to talk to everybody that he must involve in the solving of the problem. He has to visit and chat with the one that brought the problem up, as well as take a closer look at the problem itself – right?”
“The big difference now, is that we have distributed the power to act down to the front line teams. People are now authorised to take action and solve the problem themselves, instead of shifting it into the bottleneck.”
“Why only now? Why not before?”
“I guess there are many reasons. One thing that stopped this from happening before was backward looking mistake management – a common habit of managers. You know – it’s your fault, how could you be such an idiot, blah blah blah? That’s been replaced with forward looking mistake management – this happened, now how do we learn from it and move forward? Previously, people hesitated to take initiatives. They also hesitated because, for obvious reasons, they were unsure if they had identified the right kind of problems. They didn’t have the overview necessary for making that call – and they knew it.”
“How can we be sure that they will solve the right kind of problems now?”
“That’s where the new infrastructure comes into play. The initiative now lies with the guy who spots the problem. Most of the time he will simply know what to do since he is quite clear on our business priorities, as we all are these days. The strategic dialogues we have with our boss every six months mean we all feel the pace of our business in a whole new way.”
“I guess I’ll have to take your word for it.”
“So, some of these problems are obviously the right thing to do as well as obviously easy to correct. Other problems need consultation, maybe with the Production Engineer, finance people or even R&D. So we’ve put an advice system in place that people can tap into whenever they’re not sure.”
“But – come on – machine operators making changes in their own environment? What about mistakes?”
“Mistakes happened before. So that’s nothing new. But with a forward looking mistake management, people are learning and improving. You know the famous Law of Accelerating Returns?”
“Of course. Ray Kurzweil. Evolutionary systems. Growth of technology.”
“Exactly. So when we reuse experience and learn, we experience an accelerating development of our capability. For that to happen, we need a supporting infrastructure. An advice system and a forward looking learning mistake management.”
“Yeah, but we also need a lot of trust.”
“And there you’ve put your finger on the proof. The reason for not trusting people was built into our old system. Distrust was built into the very way we worked. Instead, we are now building trust.”
“And gaining speed?”
“Exactly! Right now we have just about everybody scouting for problems to solve in order to realise our strategy. Can you imagine? That is power. This is speed based on trust.”
In a complex, fast-moving environment you have to also handle the fact that deep expertise from highly trained specialists is likely to be needed in a number of areas. On top of that, many of our problems must be viewed from many different angles and perspectives before they can be properly addressed. For this you also need tailormade infrastructures.
“Tell me more about the advice system.”
“We’ve built a place in our computer system where anyone can put questions to a panel of advisers, specialists from different parts of the company. The clever thing is that you get coordinated advice from several perspectives in real time. You know, to give good advice you need many perspectives. In the old days, to put together many perspectives from many specialists took a lot of time. Now everyone’s online in the same cyberspace at the same time. So you can get an instant answer instead of having to wait forever on a decision.”
“But what about responsibility? Who’s responsible for the decisions and the outcome?”
“It’s not real if individuals are not formally responsible. So the people that make the changes are ultimately responsible.”
“Seriously? That’s a tall order.”
“Sure is, and it took some negotiation with the trade unions, I can tell you. But they liked the idea of their members moving into areas of deeper responsibility. Some of the guys on the shop floor were not too keen on the increased burden of responsibility either. So we found other kinds of jobs for them. But most people liked it, especially when we explained the bit about the forward looking mistake management.”
“So, this is what you call Dynamic Leadership?”
“Yep, the one that spots something that needs to change, takes leadership and asks for help if he needs it. When that problem is solved, maybe somebody else sees another problem, and the previous leader then becomes a supporter. The more formal Team Leader is still there to facilitate and support this process.”
“Dynamic Leadership. Hmmmm.”
“What really convinced people that this change was here to stay, was when everyone realised that the expanded responsibility also resulted in a slightly expanded pay-packet.”
In order for such an infrastructure for Dynamic Leadership to work well, a set of pre-conditions must first be in place. Each of the other major components of a healthy infrastructure, covered in earlier articles, are all needed. On top of that, they must also be tailor-made to fit the specific needs of the company. When properly implemented you will have co-workers prepared to take on increasing complexity and speed of change with a ‘speed born of trust’.
If you believe your company urgently needs Dynamic Leadership to better deal with increasing complexity and speed of change, we recommend you discuss the following questions with your colleagues:
- Do your people know that you really want them to step up and take on more responsibility? Do you provide them with the trust and authority to do so?
- Are you still somehow limiting people’s ability to take the actions that they see are needed? What roadblocks are you ready to remove?
- Have you paved the way by inviting your people into an honest strategic dialogue about where you are headed as a company?
If you believe you have ‘sleeping assets’ in this area, you may want to read the other articles in this series:
- Speed, Trust and Infrastructure
- Infrastructures for Strategic Navigation
- Infrastructures for Frontline Teams
- Infrastructures for Complex Workflows
- Infrastructures for Dynamic Leadership
- Infrastructure for Self-Organisation