Control vs Empowerment

There has been a lot of talk at work about increasing empowerment and employee engagement. The common complaint I get from management is that "we have empowered our people but they just won't make use of it". It's a common story. Management gives empowerment but nothing at all happens. Things go on as they did before - everyone looks to management for direction. No one takes initiative. No one takes ownership. No one is empowered.

Empowerment takes more than a few words from management. You can't just tell people they are empowered and lo and behold, they are empowered. Empowerment is something people can't be given. They need to take it, it isn't something you can give. It is something people need to become. Management can't give empowerment. What they need to do is create an environment that allows people to become empowered.

I been looking into leadership for agility over the last few months and one of the more useful models I have seen is based off David Marquet's "Turn The Ship Around". In that model, empowerment and ownership is something that is achieved through two things - building competence and giving clarity. Competence and clarity are the environment management needs to build in order to let people become empowered. Without those two, there can be no real empowerment.

Competence is pretty straightforward. If management wants someone to start making a certain type of decision, they need to ensure that they are competent to make that decision. That they have the right skills and training. That they have all the required information. Without that technical competence, they won't be able to make the decision and will either defer to management, or will feel forced to make a decision (because they are empowered) and will make a wrong decision that they will then be punished for. That's hardly fair.

Clarity is pretty straightforward as well. If people are to make a decision, they need to have clarity about that decision - what are the expected outcomes. What are the limits on their authority (if any) and so on. If they don't have clarity, again they will either turn to management or make a wrong decision.

Management's biggest challenge is what to do about wrong decisions. Because wrong decisions will be made. Especially in the beginning when there may well be gaps in competence and clarity. The obvious thing to avoid is punishment. Nothing strips empowerment away faster than punishing wrong decisions. Most leaders get that.

The next instinctive thing management tends to do is to look at that decision and (quite rightly) blame the system for allowing that decision to be made. That's perfectly correct and is something we lean/agile folks have been telling people for years - the problem is with the system, not with people. It's what comes next that tends to cause problems with empowerment. What people tend to do next is to look at the system, identify where the problem occurred and put a control in place to prevent that mistake in future. Quite often that control will be in the form of a review.

If the problem was a design flaw, a design review will be put in place to try to catch that problem. If the problem was with a quote, a quote review will be put in place and so on. The problem, of course, is that these reviews are almost always management reviews. Management is taking on the responsibility for preventing bad decisions by their people. "What's the problem" you ask? Well if everyone's decisions are being checked over and approved or rejected by management review, what does that do to ownership and empowerment?

Ah,yes. By putting management review in place, management has just moved the ownership of that decision up from the people who used to make that decision to themselves. Empowerment has just gone down. The more management review takes place, the fewer decisions people will make and the more they will push things up to management.

Let me give you an example. An organisation I worked for had a department where project managers, in trying to please clients, were signing off on project changes that were costing the company a bunch of money. In the order of $10M a year, which is fairly significant. So to prevent these bad project changes, a policy was put in place that all project change requests had to be signed off by state managers. Then when state managers, in order to please their clients, would still sign off on those same changes, a national change review board of national level senior managers was put in place to review all project changes. So now any change at all, no matter how small, needs national approval. Which takes months. Because there are literally hundreds of project changes made every week. Need an extra couple of network cables on a job? Project change. Need some extra memory for a managed server due to higher than expected demand? Project change. Need a longer fibre patch lead because the client moved a rack? Project change.

Project managers basically have zero decision making ability. All they can do is put in a request and wait 2 months for it to come back from management review. Then management complain that project managers aren't behaving in an empowered way and are asking them to make other trivial decisions for them. I wonder why?

So what should management do? Rather than just put in a control, take a look at the problem. Ask yourself - is this a problem with competence? Do my people lack the skills or information to make the decision correctly? Or is this a problem with clarity - are the outcomes unclear, or are the limits on authority unclear?

Management then needs to address the real problem by either increasing competence or clarity. or both. In the case above, the project changes were eroding the margins for the project - spending more money means less profit in the end. But project managers didn't know what the margins on their jobs were, and didn't know what the margin limits were. So by providing those (increasing clarity) it would enable the project managers to make more informed choices about whether to approve a change or not. If the change was going to breach a margin limit, then go to management for approval (is the job strategic enough to justify running at a low margin?). That way management increases competence and clarity, which increases ownership and empowerment, as well as keeping decision making at the local level which is much faster and more efficient.

A really handy question management can ask when looking into putting a control in place is "what extra information or skill do I bring to this decision that my people don't have?" Then whatever that is, give it to them. Give them that extra training or information so they can make the decision with the same skills and experience as you. That way you don't need the control. The system will control itself. Ownership and empowerment will increase. Management doesn't get bogged down in reviews. Decisions are made quickly. Everyone wins.