Is it time to go beyond empowerment?

For years we’ve talked about empowering people to find their own route to an agreed goal. But is that enough? Does setting the goal itself limit the possibilities?

Given the three levels below, what can we do to move to self-management?

Micro management: the manager tells the employee what steps to take to go from A to B

Empowerment: Point B is set by the manager, or agreed between manager and employee. “But you can choose how you get from A to B”

Self-management: The employee decides their own B, as well as how to get there.

In the excellent Reinventing Organisations, Frederic Laloux gives many examples of self-management. Indeed the book is dedicated to this new way of organising.

A great example he gives is from the power company AES. Newly hired Shazad Qasim wanted to return to Pakistan and research the potential for AES to provide electricity generation there. CEO Dennis Bakke was very doubtful and wouldn’t have himself approved it but, under AES self-managing rules, the decision was Shazad’s. He went back to Pakistan, created a new position for himself and, two-and-a-half years later, AES had a $700 million power plant built and creating electricity there.

That may sound a bit of a daunting example. So here’s a simple, small-scale one from my own company, Happy: When one of my colleagues, Natalie, took over credit control the amount owed from unpaid invoices stood at £135,000.

We sat down to agree targets for how much this could be reduced. I could have set a target for six months hence, a point B. Or we could have agreed one together. Or Natalie could have set it.

Instead I asked Natalie to send me a spread-sheet every fortnight, containing the key metrics (amount owed, 30 days, 90 days). And I asked her to include targets for each of these for two weeks later.

Her first targets were very optimistic and she didn’t achieve them. Her second set were very cautious and she easily beat them. But over time she became both increasingly accurate and very focused on achieving them. I never commented on the targets.

By the time she went on maternity leave nine months later, the amount owed had fallen to £35,000 – less than it had been for years and below any target I might have set.

Natalie had set her own point B (and reset it every two weeks). She had full ownership of it and how to achieve it and, as a result, did a great job of reducing how much we were owed.

What can you do to help people to set their own targets, their own point B?

Founder of Happy Ltd Henry Stewart is the author of Happy Manifesto, and helps people create happy and productive workplaces.

Connect with Henry on Twitter @happyhenry

Note: Thanks to Sandeep Khandelwal (of Abbott India), who inspired this post. He produced for me a moment of great clarity when he talked about the need to get people to define their own point B.

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