BALANCING AUTONOMY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Three company case studies provide rich insight into effective organizational management in Gary Hamel’s marvelous  book “The Future of Management”.   I have referred to this work elsewhere in this series of articles but here, I wish to draw attention to what we can learn by looking at what Hamel’s comparison of W. L. Gore, Whole Foods, and Google has to tell us about motivational options open to all managers.

At first blush, what stands out is the differences between these three companies; a manufacturer of innovative fabrics, a food retailer and an internet pathfinder. Moreover, many of the skeptics in my workshops are quick to opine that whatever may work for Google, Whole foods, and W. L. Gore probably would never be applicable to their own organization. This is especially true of Bill Gore’s company, they say, that replaces a formal management structure and complex org chart with an organizing strategy Gore likens to a lattice not a hierarchy, and where there are sponsors instead of bosses, commitments instead of assignments, and where fun and experimentation easily coexists with demanding accountability for results.

But dig deeper and there is one striking similarity between all three companies; each thrives by balancing freedom and autonomy for their employees with rigorous demands regarding accountability and deliverables. Consider that Google is often listed as one of the best places to work in America with what Hammer calls “its outsized rewards for outsized ideas” flat structure, reputation for cutting-edge innovation, and “graduate school” atmosphere. Then remember that Google’s work environment is not for the faint-hearted, thin-skinned, or lazy. You have to compete and produce to survive.

So how does this autonomy-accountability balance actually work?  It works by offering what most adult subordinates usually want — the freedom to work in ways that  suit their individual strengths, talents, personalities, and prefered work styles — in exchange for strictly defined deliverables in terms of quality, timeliness, and business/customer requirements.  And the option of striking this freedom/requirements bargain is open to all managers regardless of the type or size of his or her organization.

It is almost beyond argument that subordinates are at their best when they are assigned appropriate to their talents and strengths, given a clear sense of desired outcomes, and provided with the maximum amount of reasonable freedom to achieve their goals as they deem best.  In all but the most precisely circumscribed working environments that demand total uniformity, telling subordinates to do something and then requiring that they do it a certain way, invariably inhibits creativity, initiative, learning, growth, and often quality of output as well.

But without accountability for deliverables, deadlines, and the need that deliverables satisfy business requirements and customer needs — letting a thousand flowers bloom so to speak — simply amounts to “play”; not exactly what most organizations pay their employees for.  In Bill Gore’s company, for example, all project teams know they ultimately will need to submit their development ideas to the demanding “real, win, worth” corporate test.  That is, they must demonstrate that their idea solves a  real problem, can win a share of the relevant market, and ultimately will provide the company with profits.  While not every development idea they explore is expected to survive this gauntlet, each member of the various project teams undoubtedly understands the consequences of a sustained losing streak.

For even the best managers, striking just the right autonomy-accountability balance is never easy.  Because we are human, letting go is a challenge for most managers and not all subordinates respond  positively or appropriately to the freedom they are granted.  Granting autonomy and managing its consequent activity is a constant work in progress.

Similarly, defining outcomes with clarity and establishing quality standards can be very difficult in some work environments, especially where output quality is a highly subjective matter of management and customer interpretation.  But the fact that it is difficult, is no excuse for ignoring the potential payoff one gains as a manager when this balance bargain can effectively be attained.  Collaborating with your managerial colleagues is one way to help you clarify and educate your own thinking on outcomes and standards and help insure that there is more uniformity in approach across your organization.

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