“I intend to…”- Why modern companies need a culture of empowerment

Everyone who has worked for a long time in a ‘classical’ company has experienced conversations like this:

– What are you doing right now?
– Completing XYZ task.
– But that is utter nonsense.
– Yes, but it’s an order from the boss.

I don’t exclude our company, which was also quite classically structured and organized, with departments, department managers and all kinds of overhead, which we can, looking back, confidently label ‘business theatre’ – as Lars Vollmer calls it (in German).

Employees do certain things only to achieve their goals, not to solve customer problems. Decisions are made in central steering committees rather than in collaboration with the customer. I gave disguised instructions with “I’d like you to…” (Where sometimes a colleague would roll their eyes and mutter about a task they thought was pointless. It is likely that their assessment was correct enough. 😛 )

We’re over that. But it was the standard business theatre, which in the best case is a waste of potential and working time. In the worst case, however, it can also be dangerous for the whole organization.

It’s in this context that I would like to quote David Marquet and his inspiring book Turn the ship around. Marquet was the captain of an American nuclear submarine and has written about his leadership experiences. Military: You can’t get more top-down than that! He asks the following question:

What happens when the leader is wrong in a top-down culture?

And answers it immediately:

Everyone goes over the cliff.

Leadership and consequences in a classical organization

No one in an organization can supervise all facets of the organization’s work in its entirety upwards of a certain size. You don’t have to be in a corporation, even a company with 140 people like ours is quite sufficient.

In classical companies, attempts are made to counteract this with an ever-expanding hierarchy: divisional managers, department managers, product managers, team leaders, etc. And in this organizational structure, even the manager of a 20-strong team is fully occupied with administrative tasks, especially since outsiders such as the human resources department or the manager of change management are constantly getting in the way.

Employees and small teams at the base or in the periphery are concerned with customers’ problems. But they are passive and follow instructions given to them by people who are further away from the customer than they are themselves! This cannot make sense in any company today.

I intend to …

Marquet introduced an astonishingly simple mechanism on the USS Santa Fe to passively transform those followers into active leaders: “I intend to…”

The former submarine captain describes how he realized during an exercise that, as a leader or supervisor, he was not familiar with every detail and context. His (in that case senseless) command was passed down to the poor guy, who could only look at him perplexed and needing help, because the command was technically impossible to execute.

Obviously an enlightening experience: Marquet decided never to give an order again! Instead, he wanted to establish a culture in which hierarchically subordinate people state well-grounded intentions, and act to the best of their knowledge:

– I intend to do X, because of Y reason.
– I intend to initiate A, as this makes sense because of B.
– Because of 1 we intend to do 2.

Marquet had suddenly realized that other, hierarchically subordinate, previously passive individuals were able to assess many situations better than the leader – and thus become leaders themselves.

Turning away from phrases like Could we…? or Do you think that…? seems like a subtle change in language. But it is a dramatic shift in ownership and responsibility from passivity to activity.

(The USS Santa Fe earned awards as the best and most combat effective ship in the Pacific. Nine of the 135-strong crew went on to become submarine captains.)

The culture of empowerment leads to better decisions

I find this approach inspiring and very powerful in terms of organizing companies. Better decisions are made by those who are closer to the customer and their problems. I believe that this principle applies without restriction in our complex times.

A culture of independent decision-making and accountability rather than unconditional execution is the key to this. For this, the responsibility must be shifted to the employees, authorizing them to lead.

This does not mean that I should absolve myself of my responsibilities as a managing director. But how should I, or a steering committee, or any central (or rather ‘distant’) figure, make responsible decisions that affect the peripheral teams, which are much closer to the products, the customers, and the problems? It is only by chance that decisions made by such distant and responsible people are good.

I work intensively on this empowerment culture within the company. I try to encourage my colleagues not to ask ‘whether or not’, but rather to state straight up what they want to do and why. My colleagues’ decisions are better reasoned than mine. And I can focus on things that I understand more than these specific problems.

Transferring leadership responsibilities requires trust

Marquet wrote that his officers and sailors quickly adapted the new empowerment culture. It may be that a US Navy’s nuclear submarine is actually more flexible than some companies. 😀 In classical companies, such a transition takes a long time and often only to a limited extent, if it is actually allowed at all.

The reason for this is rarely to be found among the employees. The issue is often buried in the (middle) management: The formal structure of the company sees change and empowerment as a threat. Trust as an organizational concept is unheard of.

But trust is the foundation when employees are to be empowered to lead themselves. I trust my colleagues and the teams they form. The employees in companies are not dependent fools, nor are they malicious. They are all experts in their fields. They are concerned about their jobs and therefore the well-being of the company. If they act like dependent idiots, it is only because the formal structure of their organization forces them to do so: It demands that they behave in this way.

If employees are empowered to think for themselves and take on responsibility and initiative, they will make wise decisions and contribute to a more modern, flexible organization, collaborating more closely with customers, and be better equipped to  handle complexity.

What keeps you from promoting a culture of empowerment and using statements like “I intend to…” in your company?

Further information

Agile Organization: Principles and intentions at //SEIBERT/MEDIA
The tasks of agile coaches – education and training
Convinced about self-organized teams

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