Unlock Potential: Push Decision Making Down

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Modern management theory is built on the premise of trust.  If management creates a values-based culture, employees will make the “right” decisions.   Douglas McGregor described Theory X (not trusting) and Y (trusting) managers.   The 1950s were an inflection point where the nature of work and management practices began to shift. 

In the era of industrialization and mass production, workers generally performed rote tasks, and decision-making was reserved for management.  Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge work in the 1950s to describe people that perform non-routine, creative, and problem-solving work.  Today, leading organizations are adopting lean-agile management practices built on the Theory Y foundation of self-organizing teams.

General Stanley McCrystal described how the U.S. military shifted from its traditional command and control model to a decentralized, networked one to fight the insurgency in Iraq.  Even on the modern battlefield, where commanders can watch an operation unfold, they learned that operators made better decisions in the field. 

Decentralizing and pushing decision-making down to the lowest responsible level unlocks modern knowledge workers’ creative and innovative energy. However, creating and maintaining this new culture requires effort, fortitude, and trust.  In my career, I was fortunate to have managers who entrusted me with great responsibility.   These experiences taught me how to pay it forward with my teams. 

Process- vs. Values-Based Management

Process-based management assumes: IF the outcome is clear, the process is well-defined, and people follow the process; THEN the outcome will be predictable and acceptable.  These are strong assumptions and are insufficient for solving most complex problems.

Values-based management takes a different approach.  It assumes that people will make good decisions if they understand the desired outcome, the context and have proper training.  The values-based model creates the opportunity to understand the problem space and explore multiple solutions, which will result in a better outcome. 

As consumers, we experience the difference between these two models when we call customer service.  Representatives who are only following a script are using a rules-based model.  The model is sufficient for simple, yes/no problems. However, it falls apart when your situation does not fit the model or when your frustration level rises. 

By contrast, a values-based organization trains its representatives to deal with fuzzy, complex problems and focus on the customer experience. For example, I love my Apple products and its customer support.  Even when they cannot fix my problem, I am happy with the experience.  At Zappos, the primary objective is building the customer relationship.  An 11-hour call is a legendary example of this culture.

Commander’s Intent

The military enshrined values-based management in commander’s intent.  Before an operation, troops are briefed on the mission, including a clear description of the desired end-state (objective), context, and constraints.  By understanding the intent, rather than just following orders (tasks), troops can adapt and adjust to the operation’s changing contours. 

When David Marquet took command of the USS Santa Fe, it was the lowest-performing submarine in the U.S. Navy.  The first thing he did was stop giving orders.  Instead, he expressed intent and empowered his crew to make the decisions.  Changing this dynamic had a profound impact.  Rather than the captain being the only one thinking, the entire crew was now actively engaged in managing the ship’s operation.  Two years later, the Santa Fe received the highest performance grade ever granted.

In the business, similar concepts are embodied in theories of motivation.  David McClelland’s Three Needs Theory describes peoples’ need for achievement, power, and affiliation.  In Drive, Dan Pink discusses the importance of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  In summary, people are motivated when they are empowered to achieve a goal. 

Peter Drucker described the difference between leadership and management as, “management is doing things right, and leadership is doing the right things.”  The traditional management model emphasizes management control and oversight.  In an empowered environment, managers become more like leaders.

Successful managers set objectives and expectations, create an environment for success, and support the team.  As Dan Pink notes, we should have fewer conversations about “how and more about what and why.”

Empowerment unlocks creativity.  Multiple options are identified and considered, which builds resiliency and adaptability.  As our problems mutate, we are prepared because we have already considered alternatives. 

The Delegation Model

Transitioning to a decentralized decision-making model requires awareness from both managers and staff.  Decisions vary in size, scope, complexity, impact, and longevity.  The Manager Tools Delegation Model provides a framework for setting the context. 

The Model uses juggling as an analogy.  Balls come in different sizes and materials.  The size of the ball defines the complexity or visibility of the assignment.  The composition of the ball symbolizes risk or criticality.  Small, simple decisions might be a beach ball that will bounce if dropped.  Our complex, critical life/death decisions might be fine crystal. 

Delegating should be a thoughtful and phased process.  It is safer to start with a 2-inch super ball and move up to the giant crystal ones.  Setting the context of the decision clarifies significance and sets expectations.  The analogy is playful yet establishes a clear understanding.

When coaching a direct to assume responsibility for a critical project, he said, “This is a big, glass ball.  Isn’t it?”  It was, and he needed to be careful that it did not drop and shatter.

Trust—Do Not Verify

Trust, but verify” was a catchy political phrase used by Ronald Regan to describe adversarial negotiations with the Soviet Union over nuclear weapons.  Regrettably, the expression has been repurposed into the business environment.  If there really is trust, then there should be no need to verify. 

Leading companies have trusting cultures.  At Toyota, any employee can stop the production line to fix a problem before the car moves to the next workstation.  In a typical plant, the line is halted thousands of times a day.  At Ritz Carlton Hotels, any employee can spend up to $2,000 per incident to resolve a customer’s problem. 

Imagine the trust embodied by Toyota, Ritz Carlton, and other leading companies.  In these environments, seemingly low-level workers make impactful decisions without management approval.  Front-line workers are closest to the problem, have timely information, and can respond as the situation unfolds.

Trust creates pride of ownership which is a powerful motivator.  I was a better employee when I was trusted and empowered by my managers.  I felt like I was running my own business within a large corporation.  I was personally invested.  I made good decisions and was accountable.

© 2021, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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Promo: Modern management theory is built on the premise of trust.  If management creates a values-based culture, employees will make the “right” decisions.