How autonomous decision-making will unleash your organization’s agility

By Nerys Mutlow, - Employee experienceFuture Workplace

‘All roads lead to Rome.’

This common phrase encapsulates how most organizations function today.

Decision-making is centralized in one seat of power – just like in Rome.

Accountability and responsibility flow upwards, and those at the outer-reaches of the organization have little say in what happens to them.

Like the saying, the model is incredibly familiar – and somewhat archaic.

And as companies need to be increasingly adaptive and responsive in order to grow – or just stay relevant – this set-up becomes less practical.

You end up disempowering the very people you need to make your business successful.

So, it’s time to break away from Rome!

Enabling smart, autonomous decision-making will allow your business to attain new levels of agility – as I’ll explain in this blog post.

The illusion of control

One of the biggest problems with centralized decision-making is only some of your staff get to have responsibility.

How many organizations have you been in where goals cascaded down to you without your involvement?

Did those goals ever stick?

Meaningless or unachievable KPIs often simply create the need to find evidence to prove you’ve met objectives come the end of the year.

So, the cascade approach does little to foster a culture of accountability or innovation within a workforce.

And if workers don’t feel personally responsible for those goals, what’s the point?

The cascade approach just offers the illusion of control.

Managers might think they’re focusing their workforce on the right areas. But as targets are only reviewed once a year, actions are rarely reconciled with goals to ensure they’re adding value.

So, the time has come for us to disrupt the classic manager-subordinate relationship – and turn everyone into leaders.

Objectives and key results

Objectives and key results – or OKR – is a framework which empowers every member of your staff to make smart, autonomous decisions.

Objectives are developed and owned at a team level, with clear, measurable KPIs that are reviewed weekly, meaning every decision made is in the context of these objectives.

For example, say your cloud team decides that multiskilling is an essential skill that requires a certain level of training. An OKR model means they can unilaterally decide to deprioritize all other training that doesn’t contribute towards this objective.

And because their growth objectives are clear, OKR ensures a focus on creating a sensible, profitable business is at the forefront of everyone’s minds.

So, management is no longer focused on making every decision or setting every action.

Instead, they provide support and guidance so workers can make decisions they feel will best contribute towards the success of their organization. This approach also creates a culture of accountability shared by everybody in your team.

This creates objectives that actually drive the business forward – and not placeholders to be reviewed come Christmas.

Unified through culture

We find OKR coupled with a strong set of company-led values works best. This is because people’s actions are ultimately dictated by the values they live by.

If you can shape the values held about your company, you can begin to foster a more dynamic form of oversight.

For example, Amazon has several mantras which form everyone’s core values about the company, no matter what position they’re in.

And because they’ve propagated mantras like “be obsessed with the customer”, they can trust the smart members of staff they’ve hired to make decisions based on those ideals.

This way, instead of having a narrow pool of leaders that are inevitably slow to make changes, they have thousands of leaders all making smart decisions quickly.

Every employee becomes a leader in their own right.

This enables your organization to make decisions quickly and pivot on demand – taking advantage of new opportunities or disruptions when they present themselves, rapidly.

And once an organization can do these two things, they can take on any challenge that comes their way.

Culture change through technology

Changes in technology, governance and processes all play a part, but aren’t enough on their own.

Company culture is the first and biggest transformation that needs to take place.

It’s so important that we’ve even started a cultural transformation program to help firms start on the right track.

We sit down with them to find out what their core values are and the outcomes they need to achieve.

Then, through a series of company-wide exercises around mindfulness, we spread that core message.

Tech enables you to proliferate these beliefs through an organization very quickly.

And once you’ve successfully done this, enabling autonomous decision-making is the easy part.

If your staff all share the same beliefs, it will change how they think when making company decisions, which will influence what they do when acting on behalf of it.

Failure is part of the process

When embarking on your culture transformation journey, be prepared to fail a few times.

At Fujitsu, we wanted a more agile, flatter organization, so the first thing we did was strip away hierarchies.

This meant workers on the front-line with specialist knowledge didn’t need to climb their way up the rungs of leadership to get to us and provide feedback to better shape our business.

But even then, we had to go back to the drawing-board more than once to re-optimize our approach. We were also reminded about how relentless communication needed to be to drive a cultural change.

Ultimately, all you’re trying to do is create the right operating environment for your teams to thrive.

Because once you empower your workers and let them use their imaginations and innovative spirits, they will lift your organization to new heights.

So ask yourself, have you created the right environment for your employees? Are they driving change in your business? Have you empowered them to make decisions? If the answer is no, then it’s time to find a new model.


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