Empowerment. It’s a word that business leaders often use to fire up their teams. But in all likelihood it causes those teams to groan, and not just because it’s a management buzzword. So why does something that is supposed to be good go wrong?
It goes something like this:
The organization is growing and the leader wants to create some scale. Or a new leader comes in believing agile teams should be self-determining. They excitedly tell the team, “you’re empowered”. So the team makes a decision or takes some action, and then in comes the leader to overrule them. The team won’t try to make decisions or take action again. Instead they will grumble when they hear about empowerment and the leader will wonder: “Why isn’t this working?”
The lesson the team learns is just to wait for direction. But the lessons the team needs to learn are: how to make good decisions, how to make trade-offs, how to prioritize, and when to take on debt. Decision making is a learned skill, not something you just inherently possess.
The command-and-control system most companies still cling to is, in fact, disempowering. We talk so much about empowering people because all of our policies and procedures have taken so much of their power away. Patty McCord, former Chief Talent Officer at Netflix.
Teams have to move quickly, learn, and adapt to be successful in the digital economy. If teams can do that they have a chance at meeting their customers’ changing needs and generating a return on investment for the business. Without empowerment everything slows down and the people who are further away from what’s happening with customers make all the decisions.
If you want to empower your team you will need to overcome the fear of the past and create an environment that helps teams to learn and experiment. Here are a few recommendations, based on my professional experience as well as my research for a forthcoming book, The Product Mindset: Succeed in the Digital Economy by Changing the Way Your Organization Thinks.
Point Towards the Mountain
Leading organizational psychologist Richard Hackman found that giving employees a clear picture of the mountain they’re climbing and letting them decide how to scale it has the greatest likelihood of success. “Although many aspects of our collective endeavor are open for discussion, choice of mountain is not among them,” he wrote.
I recently worked with a growing company and interviewed more than 15 team members. No one could tell me what the objectives were for the next three to six months. Prioritization decisions were made without the team’s knowledge or involvement. When leadership asked them to make a decision they got stuck in spin cycles because they didn’t know what they were trying to achieve. Eventually leadership would lose patience and make the decision, perpetually continuing the empowerment disillusionment cycle.
We focus on cultivating a product mindset in our teams so that everyone on the team is focused on building for outcomes for both the customer and the business. If team members know what mountain they’re climbing, they’ll know if they are making progress, standing still, or backsliding, and can change path as they see fit. They will be able to make decisions and trade-offs about what will get them close to the peak.
Years ago, I worked with a CEO who was approaching on the biggest time of year for selling and who wanted to ship a lot more features than the team had capacity to build in the timeframe. I had him identify three things that would help him close more business and we prioritized everything on his list with those three things in mind. With that level of clarity the team powered through far more work than we expected.
Set Rules for the Journey
I was raised by a professional negotiator. My mom did multimillion dollar deals for the federal government. She’s retired now and having fun with her grandchildren, but in her job she was tough, creative, and effective. She knew exactly how much she could push and where to stop without having to constantly get permission.
Setting clear boundaries empowers employees to be brave enough to push all the way to the edges. They know they won’t get their hand slapped if they stay within their own “playground”. Without boundaries, they may wonder what invisible restrictions might lead to arbitrary punishment.
A CTO friend of mine likes to talk about the importance of an uptime budget for devops engineers. If these engineers keep to their budget, they are free to operate as they see fit. If they go over budget, controls are activated to stabilize things and coach them to be more effective.
Stanford researchers have learned that simple rules help people and organizations who need to make complicated decisions quickly. These are limited in number, made for defined activities for that company and allow for discretion. Rules include boundaries, prioritizing, stopping, how-to, coordination, and timing. I’ve done exercises with engineering leaders to create rules and my absolute favorites are “what you build will own you” and “fear complexity”. They are easy to remember and guide engineers to make good decisions.
The principles of a product mindset are designed to help teams ask questions and have a guide for making decisions.
- Minimize Time to Value – Is this the smallest thing that we can deliver?
- Solve for Need – Will this help solve the customer’s problem?
- Excel at Change – Can we keep the cost of change low?
Boundaries shouldn’t be permanent. If the team pushes up against them regularly they may be wrong. There are many emerging technology and market changes that challenge the way we work and what we think good looks like. I don’t write user stories or make wireframes every day anymore. My team is closer to those activities and knows them better than I do. If the controls I put in place don’t work anymore, it’s time for them to evolve and I need to be open to that and not be stuck in the past.
Focus on Learning and Teaching
One of the best teachers I know always says that the best way to teach is to think out loud. To tell people how you investigate a problem, come up with solutions and make the decision. By making your problem-solving process visible, your team can learn and improve their problem-solving process.
When I was in design school I read an article with Donald Schon that has stuck with me ever since. In talking about what he looks for in a designer, he said: “One thing that I watch for is whether they have their own gyroscope – in other words, whether they can tell when they’ve got something that’s good. I look to see wherever their sense of what’s good meets, at some minimal level, my own sense of what’s good. I look to see if there’s a big gap that I interpret as a gap of quality showing they haven’t gotten there yet… it’s exciting to see that gyroscope develop over the years – and it does take years… the reason that the gyroscope is so powerful is that, if students have it, then they can look at their own work – maybe not immediately, but, perhaps a week later and they can say ‘Oh, damn. This is terrible.’”
The best teachers don’t tell you what you did wrong, they help you discover it for yourself. They ask the right questions and help you reflect on your decisions. Empowered organizations are teaching organizations where leaders help team members create their own “internal gyroscope” that guides them towards better decisions.
They provide psychological safety that allows team members to be willing to share their ideas and take risks. Are you just shooting down your team’s ideas? Or are you helping them work through their ideas towards better solutions?
Empowerment Isn’t Easy, but it’s Worth it
One of our clients is a deep believer in agile and that agile teams are self-determining. He wanted a team to take more risks and push forward their ideas. Unfortunately that team had been trained for years to be order-takers and they forgot how to do anything else. We gave the team a structured framework for coming up with ideas and experimenting. In just a couple of days they were putting forward new ideas and the client was encouraging them. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen with the right elements in place.
I’ve never encountered an organization with a lack of ideas, but I’ve seen lots of organizations where people aren’t willing to listen to or nurture those ideas. There is more speed, creativity and innovation in your organization than you know and you can unlock it if you’re willing to do the work.