I recently saw this quote from Laszlo Bock, the head of HR at Google (@LaszloBock2718): “Most organizations are designed to resist change and enfeeble employees.”
That comment just struck me. I mean, seriously? MOST organizations?
I have worked with a bunch of organizations, from profit to non-profit, from tiny to Fortune #1. And I have found that most of them are led by positive, talented people. Are these great folks actually guilty of perpetuating what Laszlo is boldly calling out?
I would have to say… yes.
Not because I want to say it, but because if I slow it down long enough to think about it, it’s the logical conclusion.
Think about this:
- How often do people in the frontlines offer a solution to challenge the status quo/fix a problem and get told “no” before they even get a chance to fully explain their reasoning?
- How often do people waste their time/limit their effectiveness because of a broken process or tool?
- How often do leaders spend time explaining why they are saying “no” versus explaining why they are saying “yes” to someone else’s idea?
You see, even if you are a leader who is positive, talented, and genuinely trying to do the right thing… even if you have analyzed the core problem(s) and put a lot of resources into defining a great solution… even if you spend time developing a handful of people to increase their leadership capacity… IF YOU ARE THE PERSON MAKING ALL OF THE KEY DECISIONS, YOU ARE RESISTING CHANGE AND ENFEEBLING EMPLOYEES.
Let me explain.
There is way too much data and research that supports the power of real collaboration, of bringing the frontline into topline discussions about improvements and innovations. This is a fact. But when we, as leaders (and I am looking into my own mirror here), take over the entire decision-making process, we are setting ourselves up to limit – and even disregard – inputs from our team.
In other words, why would our direct reports suggest ideas and innovations to us when we always explain why we can’t do them? Why would our teams offer to take on more responsibility if we aren’t going to actually empower them? Do we actually think we know EVERYTHING? How absolutely arrogant.
There is no way that any of us could possibly know everything. Nor is it possible that we could make the right decision on every topic, especially since we aren’t experts on every topic.
What we, as leaders, should do must do is build the system so that we can collect the inputs and ideas from our frontlines so that we can guide them, not shut them off. We want to empower healthy decision-making throughout the organization. This means that we have to change our entire process of setting the overall strategy. Instead of casting a vision like some egomaniacal copy of a popular culture icon glorified hero of the battlefield and building a detailed strategy for everyone to execute, we need to build a vision with our folks, pulling them in from the very beginning and creating a clear definition of success that you can release everyone to pursue in a way that allows freedom, learning, and collective success. This is the approach when you want to create long-term, sustainable growth – not short-term, limited focus, battlefield wins. Which is why the American military has always suffered when it tries to occupy and manage long-term. You can’t use military strategy, as cool as that sounds, to succeed in long-term efforts. Military strategy is not designed to do anything but make the conflict as short as possible.
(Side thought: people immediately think that military strategy is the ONLY definition of strategy – which it isn’t. You know that, right?)
This different approach means that your team will likely make mistakes, and even FAIL, but if you have set failure up as a part of the path to excellence, as part of the path to long-term growth, the team will get there. If you have set failure up as something to be avoided at all costs, the team will NEVER achieve the vision because they will hold back when taking a risk is the right choice to make.
Instead of gambling on the extra effort to score, they will punt. Every time.
And here’s the rub. The systems, processes, tools, and metrics that we so proudly hold up as the way that we enable people are actually the devices that are used to identify failure so that it can be punished. Enfeebling everyone. Making people hide their mistakes, avoid attention, and ignore opportunities to change. We wind up with a culture that embeds the status quo. That perpetuates it. Even when the status quo has gone long past its expiration date. If anything defines the idea of resisting change, this is it.
I mua. Onward and upward.
By Tim Ohai