The leaders, planners, architects, and consultants in the proverbial ivory tower have become a poignant metaphor for what ails our organizations.
The elitist “thinkers” go into seclusion, come up with the way ahead for the organization, and then proclaim to everyone else what should be done and how it should be done—to be successful.
How nice. The “know-it-alls” tell everyone else (who obviously don’t know anything) how to do their jobs. Isn’t that empowering (not!)?
Harvard Business Review (July-August 2010) has a great article called “The Execution Trap” about the failure of the traditional strategy-execution model where executives dictate the strategy and expect everyone below to mechanically carry it out.
The strategy-execution model is analogous to the human body, where the brain instructs the body parts what to do. The executives choose what to do and the employees are treated as the brainless doers.
Typically executives take advantage of this separation of strategy and execution by patting themselves on the back for a “brilliant strategy” when results are good, but blaming the employees for “failed execution” when results come in poor.
Of course, in this thoughtless and thankless management model, employees feel disconnected, helpless, hopeless, and “invariably, employees decide simply to punch their time cards rather than reflect on how to make things work better for their corporation and its customers.” In the management model, employees are not true partners with leadership and they know it and act accordingly.
As a result, leadership turns to hiring outside consultants rather than working with their own organization, making what appears as “unilateral and arbitrary” decisions and this ends up alienating employees even further. It becomes a vicious cycle of alienation and hostility, until the entire capacity to strategize and execute completely breaks down.
HBR puts forward an alternative to this called the choice-cascade model, in which executives make “abstract choices involving larger, longer-term investments, whereas the employees…make more concrete day-to-day decisions that directly influence customer service and satisfaction.”
The metaphor here is of a whitewater river, where upstream choices set the context for those downstream. But the key is that “senior managers empower workers by allowing them to use their best judgment in the scenarios they encounter,” rather than just throwing a playbook of policies and procedures at them to follow dutifully and mindlessly—without application, deviation, or even emotion.
In the choice-cascade model, “because downstream choices are valued, and feedback is encouraged, the framework enables employees to send information back upstream” and as such employees play an important role in the initial strategy development.
The big difference in the two models is in the support that we can expect to get from our employees. In the strategy-execution model, where executives pit themselves against employees, you end up with employees that are alienated and do only what they have to do. In contrast, in the choice-cascade model, where executive and employees team to develop the strategy and then empower employees at every level to execute on it—responsibly and with a sense of ownership—everyone not only does what they are told, but they do what needs to be done to be jointly successful.
Which organization would you want to work in?