Does Your Organisation Need Liberation?

I’ve been inspired by a recent HBR article on liberating and empowering teams (Carney and Getz).  The notion of a smarter, more agile, more responsive organisation is not new and yet for most, it remains elusive. In fact, given the number of failed attempts I’ve witnessed, I would ask “is it even possible?”  

Carney & Getz would say it is.  In observing over 100 companies, they found examples of increased productivity, employee engagement and bottom line performance.  In fact, in those organisations studied, engagement was almost double that of their peers. But if the benefits are there, why is it so hard for organisations to take this evolutionary leap?

creating a more engaged, productive and profitable organisation is at the heart of our mission

For Boards & Executives, creating a more engaged, productive and profitable organisation is at the heart of our mission. But before you go and hire the next ‘corporate guru’ for your annual offsite, there are some important realities (and uncomfortable truths) to think through:

  1. Leadership:  Unfortunately many of our leaders are now 3+ decades into their career and have some pretty firm views on how things are done.  I've seen a number of examples where leaders espouse the new world order but a) can't bring themselves to do it and b) undermine the change through their unconscious values & behaviours.
    Question for the Board: If we set the tone from the top, are our leaders playing in tune?

  2.  Culture:  I've had some recent experience with organisations who talk the talk, but can't walk the talk. Typically their organisational DNA is anchored in a past business model, culture and norms.  Waving a wand or getting up behind a lectern doesn't change anything when you're fighting the innate nature of a human collective. Question for the Board: Will our culture embrace liberation or will there be an auto-immune reaction to it?

  3. Management skills:  Frankly, 90% of managers couldn’t manage or lead a liberated team.  Putting ego aside and acting as a coach rather than a manager is a pretty advanced skill. It takes a lot of emotional intelligence and leadership acumen to guide people in flight without disrupting the flight pattern. The reality is, most managers don’t have what it takes and in the average organisation, this type of change would lead to chaos. Have you seen 5yr olds play soccer? 
    Question for the Board: Do we have a plan to coach the coaches? Do we need a migration strategy to protect brand, customer and financial value? 

  4. Diversity:  Sure a liberated team approach would suit some people, but other personality types find these environments difficult, ambiguous and in some cases a source of anxiety. If we’ve accepted the need for and benefit of diversity, we need to cater for that in different work styles & preferences too.  
    Question for the Board: How will you protect the diversity of work styles as you move to a liberated team model?  

There is no doubt that dynamic, self-organising teams can have benefits for competitiveness, customer value and long term sustainability.  But to pursue a “corporate liberation” transformation you should definitely go into with your eyes open.  

Issues for Governance

This business model presents major governance challenges for an organisation.  It requires transformation of the Board’s culture and processes as much as is required in the business. For example, how would the Board:

  • Manage culture when it evolves from the bottom up?

  • Balance compliance & risk management with entrepreneurial behaviour of teams? 

  • Invest & allocate resources without centralised accountability and a common measure of performance?

  • Monitor leading indicators when they vary from team to team?

  • Ensure legal & regulatory compliance when teams exercise extreme autonomy?

Despite the challenges however, the benefits can’t be ignored. Some would argue that this change to employee expectations is inevitable. That being the case, now is the time to start considering these issues and their impact on our strategy, culture and our  duty to drive performance and sustainability.  

The focus of late has been on digital transformation but the imperative of organisational transformation is just as real.  Trends such as corporate liberation are just the tip of the iceberg. Now is the time to experiment and invest, understanding the needs & trends of the future employee ecosystem before they are thrust upon us.