by Achim Nowak

Stop DELEGATING, please!

October 23, 2023

It’s one of the first things they teach you in a middle-management leadership class.

Don’t do it all yourself. Delegate to the team.

YES to Part One of that statement. About the delegation piece? Why not empower your frontline team members to make more decisions without you? Eliminate the endless stream of emails or text messages that seek Mommy’s or Daddy’s approval for key activities.

Give them the authority to decide. That means giving up some power of your own. 

It’s an age-old story. SAP, the German software giant, is animated by a progressive leadership mindset that aspires to meaningfully engage its employees at every organizational level. Near the end of his tenure as co-CEO of SAP, Jim Hagemann Snabe – currently the chairman at Siemens - discovered that the company had amassed more than 50,000 KPIs (key performance indicators). These KPIs covered every job in the company. He was horrified.

We were trying to run the company by remote control, Snabe recalls. We had all this amazing talent, but we asked them to put their brains on ice.

The beauty of empowering others is that your own power is not diminished in the process.”

Barbara Coloroso, best-selling author

Consider this an antidote to top-down control. In 2012, the tire company Michelin decided to disrupt its notoriously hierarchical corporate structure. That same year, it launched a decision-making reboot called responsibilisation (French for “empowerment”). The premise was simple. How can we turn a top-down decision-making enterprise into a bottom-up initiation and decision-making venture?

Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini carefully documented this intentional hierarchy disruption in an older issue of Harvard Business Review (“How Michelin gives its frontline teams the power to make a difference”, HBR, July/August 2020). Responsibilisation delivered half a billion dollars’ worth of added revenue and manufacturing improvements by the end of its most recent fiscal year.

The power of disrupting the approval loop.

While each organization begins with a different baseline, there are 2 fundamental questions that will get you started on your workforce empowerment transformation.

If you’re a Senior leader, manager or supervisor of any group of employees, begin here:

1. What decisions can you make without my help?
2. What problems can you solve without involving me or colleagues from other departments in your problem-solving?

Simple, right? The moment we drill down into these questions, we tend to discover just how many decisions we don’t really need to “own.” Moreover – and this may be the tougher lesson for a Senior leader – when we allow those who are closer to front-line job performance to own critical decisions, they will often make better decisions.

When Michelin first began its empowerment experiment, it recruited 38 teams totaling 1500 employees (roughly 1% of Michelin’s total workforce). Team leaders were encouraged to let go of their decision-making and, instead, enable those they supervised to decide.

Surprise. Employees were jaded from years of corporate decision-making on their behalf. They weren't jumping with joy at the chance at making more decisions. They were cynical about this latest corporate initiative. Sound familiar?

At Michelin, the tipping point came when employees realized that no one was going to stop them. That empowerment wasn't another management fad.

I realize just how powerful that statement is a as I jot it down: NO ONE WAS GOING TO STOP THEM.

Here are a few of the lessons Michelin learned about redistributing authority. I hope these lessons will be helpful to you, whether you're championing a formal empowerment experiment or not: 

  • Build momentum for your experiment by starting with your front-line teams. They are the employees that have the most to gain from greater decision-making autonomy. Senior managers may be more vested in holding on to their organizational authority. They have worked hard to "get there." They may not be ready to share power.
  • Make participation voluntary. Invite teams to participate in authority redistribution instead of mandating it. Don't force people to own more decision-making. Be ready to be surprised. Some of your disgruntled staff who habitually complain about the horrors of company management may not be the ones who step up to the plate. They relish being victims. They like being disgruntled. They may not actually wish to "own" anything.
  • Upgrade skills. New responsibilities often require new capabilities and new skill sets. Set your teams up to be successful in taking greater ownership of their work by providing them with the training and information they need to succeed.

Companies that have shifted more decision-making authority to front-line workers learn that, in the long run, this may require hiring a differently skilled employee. A strong entrepreneurial mindset (even though that may be stated as one of your corporate values) suddenly needs to be fully lived by every member of the workforce, not just the Executive Team. Some of the existing workforce will not make the shift.

The principle is simple. Stop delegating. Shift power. Authorize front-line decision-making. It always starts with the same 2 fundamental questions: What decisions can you make without my help? What problems can you solve without involving me?

Bureaucracy is dead, writes Doug Kirkpatrick, one of the world's leading authorities on self-management and the author of "The No-Limits Enterprise: Organizational Self-Management in the New World of Work." It just doesn't know it yet.

Contemplate the 2 questions. And don’t call it delegating, please. You’re redistributing authority.

That’s powerful stuff.

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