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Tenet #6 - Ten Tenets of Change Management

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by Larry Pendergrass, Principal

Tenet #6: Empower decision making consistent with the vision.

As Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” All too often leaders set themselves up to be the only decision maker for their change management projects. For well-intentioned reasons, leaders take on the mantle of ultimate judge for ideas and tactical implementation details of all kinds in a project. In fact, our new world of Sarbanes-Oxley[1] accountability rules has made this situation worse, driving many leaders to pull back on delegation. The investment community and the law require a level of scrutiny and direct decision-making for accounting from our key leaders that have caused some to behave in a similar fashion nearly all decisions. The result in some firms has been that top management is now the bottleneck on many decisions.

All organizational choices for roles and responsibilities are made to optimize some business process, but usually weaken others. For example, a highly centralized command and control environment optimizes for ownership for results at the top, and for the prevention of actions deemed inappropriate or too risky. If the top leader is clearly superior in knowledge, skill and judgment compared to everyone else, it could also optimize for best decision making; but this is seldom the case, in spite of the leader’s self-image. At the same time, it de-optimizes for development of new leaders and for involvement and buy-in at a levels. It may also produce a slower[2] organization. This is what I like to call the “American football coach” style of management. In American football, we see the coaches barking out orders from their playbook from the sidelines to the quarterback. The quarterback in turn barks out orders to the rest of the team. This organizational style works well in a game where, after each play, the game is stopped and new orders are given.

Another model of organizational design and role/responsibility assignments follows a more decentralized decision-making environment. There is still a clear leader articulating the vision, mission and goals and acting as trainer and final decision maker for the toughest decisions, but decision-making is largely distributed. Decisions are driven down to the lowest possible level. This method optimizes for multi-tasking, development of new leaders and involvement and buy-in from all in the organization, but it may take on more risk with less informed key leadership, and possibly see risky or inappropriate actions taken by some in the organization. This is what I like to call the “soccer coach” or “European football” style of management. When a fast game starts and nearly continuous play is expected, there is no time to continually ask the coach’s permission and guidance for every play. Success relies on a motivated, trained, self-directed team to make decisions in an ever shifting landscape, decisions consistent with the overall mission.

You have a strong guiding coalition. You have been consistently over-communicating a simple and clear message. You have broken your project into phases, and you have a motivated and trained workforce. Now empower them to drive toward the future. Allow them to make timely decisions according to your shared goals. Drive decision making down to the lowest possible levels. These actions will not only speed the process and release top leaders for other strategic efforts, but improve the solution generation and the degree of buy-in at all levels in the organization.

My next blog concerns the essential nature of short term wins in change projects.


[1] The Sarbanes-Oxley act of 2002 (AKA Sarbox or SOX), is a United States federal law that set new and enhanced standards for all public accounting firms and public company boards and management.

[2] Note that a “command and control” or centralized decision-making organization can be very fast, if the leader is available to make quick decisions. But my experience says that this availability is seldom the case in today’s business world. More commonly, centralized decision-making may help add a margin of safety for critical decisions, but it is often over-used and becomes a bottleneck, slowing the overall organization. Distributed decision-making can be very slow too, if too many decisions are made through a laborious and unnecessary consensus generation. Like all tools in the management tool kit, both centralized decision making, and decisions by committee should be used carefully and appropriately.

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