At one time or another, every leader reflects ruefully just how much easier everything would be if their employees just did what they said. No questions, no dissent, no misunderstandings.
For some leaders, that’s a holy grail – for them professional excellence looks like an organization that runs like a machine: predictable, consistent, with quality, productivity, and efficiency continually increasing. This is the assembly line model – when we know exactly what we want to build, we can focus everything into optimizing every machine, every worker, every process on increasing the efficiency of building one exact, specific widget.
If people were invariable and constant, if a business’s processes were completely repeatable and unchanging, and if the markets and competition didn’t disrupt but changed only in response to lower prices eked out from improved efficiencies, that would be a reasonable competitive leadership position. In reality, though, most leaders live in an environment where today’s excellence is tomorrow’s table stakes. Where markets are unpredictable and the competition comes out of left field. Where machine-like, repeatable precision and employee compliance make adapting to a changing environment all but impossible.
The problem is that machine-like compliance leaves no room for judgment. Compliant employees don’t gain the experience necessary to apply good judgment when the landscape suddenly changes, making it necessary for the leader to now make detailed decisions about every little thing. The standard operating procedures previously used by robot-like employees no longer serve and so at the time when the leader most needs to focus on the big picture, all her energy is instead spent on giving detailed instructions in every area.
Think about the goofy exercises you run into in corporate training to learn communication skills – the ones where you have to give someone instructions on how to tie a tie and they have to do exactly what you say. You end up with some pretty funny-looking neckwear. I think the lesson is supposed to be about being clear in your communication, but my takeaway is that if you want people to wear ties regularly you will want to work with folks who know the steps and know what you mean if you say, “Please put on a tie.” Or even better, folks who will make tie-wearing decisions with good judgment on their own.
The alternative to compliance is collaboration. Collaborative employees spend every day developing their judgment. Instead of a set of business processes to guide the 80% of work that is routine, they have expertise and shared experience that make that work automatic. In non-routine work they are practiced in solving problems as they come up. They work individually and collectively to improve their response to recurring problems and to craft solutions for unique ones. As they develop their expertise, they become increasingly effective in highly complex situations. When unexpected disruptions hit their business, they are already highly skilled in adapting rapidly, freeing the leader to focus his time on the competition.
A nice side effect of a collaborative culture is a drastic reduction in “management”, which in a compliant culture tends to mean ensuring obedience and conducting quality control. Collaborative teams are self-managing, and the role of “management” lies largely in creating an environment where good judgment and talent flourish.