Justin Hughes writes on issues relating to team and organisational performance. A former Red Arrows pilot, he is now Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy which exists to be the first-choice partner for organisations genuinely committed to high performance. ​Justin previously spent 12 years as an RAF fighter pilot and is a renowned speaker on performance and risk and has presented alongside Richard Branson and Kofi Annan. He can be found on Twitter at @JustinMissionEx.

There is an apocryphal quote which I have heard attributed to various sources along the lines of: ‘Your organisation’s people regularly achieve the most amazing things.  Just not on work time.’ 

Another interesting thought was presented to me just recently by a senior manager in construction: ‘What would you rather have: a great team and no rules, or a bunch of cowboys and a perfect book of rules?’

The Illusion of Control

The underlying logic in both quotes is that people are more than capable of both looking after themselves and achieving great things. Organisations often simply don’t let them.

Put like that, it seems a crazy proposition.

Why would you stifle that creativity and ability? Well, managers like to maintain the illusion of control.

Processes are great for efficiency. Empowerment is great for effectiveness.

Without rules, processes and controls, how will we know that people are doing what they are supposed to do?

But if that logic is true, what will they do when they face a situation for which there is no pre-planned solution.

Rules and processes are only useful for dealing with repeats of history and the reasonably predictable.  Rather inconveniently, most major disasters and system shocks are one-offs.

It would be kind of handy to prepare for them, as well as the predictable.

Efficiency and effectiveness

Empowerment is a word which managers and organisations struggle with. They like the idea, and they use the word a lot. But it’s risky, that setting-people-free stuff.

Processes are great for efficiency. Empowerment is great for effectiveness. What about if it wasn’t a trade-off? Autonomy AND compliance. Empowerment AND alignment. Efficiency AND effectiveness.

This is when we get resilience.

Rules and processes are great. In fact, they are essential. But they can’t be the whole story.

Empowerment has to be operationalised and move from the offsite or classroom to the line.

The more complex and unpredictable your operating environment, the more you need ability to THINK, and the freedom to apply your thinking. 

Empowerment has to be operationalised and move from the offsite or classroom to the line.

It’s not a free lunch. It only works as part of a flow: clarity-alignment-empowerment.

And you can’t just talk about it, or ‘make it so.’ You have to equip people with the decision-making skills, set the boundaries, communicate regularly, and establish a culture of trust.

Diners or Fishermen?

It’s the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish… imagine if you never had to supply another fish.

If the team not only worked out how to fish better, they made their own set of self-regulated rules to fish safely.

And they did it on your time. Now that would be something.

The Business of Excellence, by Justin Hughes, is now available to order at Bloomsbury Publishing. 

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