Monday, January 28, 2013

Empowerment done right

On Saturday I read this tweet by David Anderson:

I am one of the track chairs, and this tweet made me think about empowerment (again).

Empowerment is not that easy

No matter which concepts and models you dig into - nowadays almost all of them recommend empowerment. And who would ever argue against empowerment? So just empower everyone, and you‘ll be golden, right? The problem is: It is really hard to "do" empowerment right. In order to make empowerment successful, you need boundaries, trust, an appropriate environment, and leadership. As soon as you lack one of these ingredients, empowerment might not work as you want it to. I will walk through these points and use the conference Lean Kanban North America (LKNA) as an example.
The LKNA conference is split into 6 different tracks plus the main stage. Every single track has a track chair who is responsible for setting up the program for his track. Hillel Glazer is the program chair, so he‘s responsible for the overall program (watch this video with Hillel), of course he works closely together with David Anderson, who is the conference chairman (he pays the bill;-).


The first thing that Hillel did after he had found his track chairs was to organize a conference call where  we discussed some basic stuff about the conference. But what he basically did was setting the boundaries. Three of them (and the most obvious ones) are: Every track chair has a budget to compensate for travel expenses and a certain amount of nights in the speaker hotel. There are also deadlines for having the program ready. And the sessions should somehow be related to the topic of the track.
This sounds trivial, but I think it‘s not! The art is to set the right boundaries! They have to be in balance between being too tight and too loose. If they are too loose, people might not know what to do - they tend to get lost in their empowerment (and in this case, the costs for the conference might explode). If the boundaries are too tight, people might become frustrated, because they don‘t have room to manoeuver. Also, too tight boundaries kill innovation (you will get what you always got). 
Classical management tends to set too tight boundaries. As a counter measure, in the agile community, we often make the mistake to go into the other extreme: way to loose boundaries (or none at all)!


The LKNA conference is not a pet project. It‘s the flagship of the worldwide Lean-Kanban movement, and the costs will be in the range of a medium 6-digit number. For this reason it‘s important that Hillel trusts his track chairs (and that the track chairs trust each other). One way to reach this level of trust is to build a long term relationship (play an infinite game instead of a finite one). Most of the track chairs know each other by person, and Hillel knows all of them. And there is another important thing about trust, we learned from our experience with Kanban implementations: Frequent delivery builds trust. Hillel gave me trust on advance by empowering me. And I want to keep and increase that trust, so I give my very best to deliver in small batches (talk by talk), and if I fail to do, I will talk to him as soon as I know (admitting failure also increases trust).
In my experience, a lack of trust is one of the biggest problems in many organizations. As long as we don‘t get a leaver on increasing trust, we will not benefit from empowerment!


In order to be successful in putting together a great program, the track chairs need the right kind of environment. An effective communication structure is part of this environment. Transparency about what the other track chairs do is also crucial. We don‘t want to contact the same speakers twice, we want to gain some economy of scale, and perhaps we need a common pool of backup speakers. Who‘s responsible for this environment? In my opinion, Hillel is. That does not mean that he has to implement all of this by himself. Perhaps it evolves from the track chairs themselves. But Hillel should have an eye on it and make sure that this environment will be in place when needed!
With all the bashing on management, people tend to forget the importance of a good environment. In my view, taking care of this environment is a core duty of management - and good mangers do this well!  If we don‘t have management any more, we need to have other mechanisms in place!


So far, Hillel has shown great leadership in organizing the conference program. He set up the environment, he has an eye on the big picture, he points us to pitfalls and great opportunities (but never forces us to take one of them), he gives us examples of how things worked well and how things might not work, he asks if people need help when there seems to be no progress, etc. This does not mean that Hillel is the only one that takes leadership - we all do every know and then. 
It‘s impossible to talk about empowerment without talking about leadership - it‘s the flipside of the same coin. Empowerment can never work without leadership! We don‘t necessarily need to tie leadership to a single role or person. But we need to make sure that leadership takes place! Someone needs to ask all the unpleasant questions at the right time, be the messenger of bad news, step outside the comfort zone etc. 
Here again: We tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater! When we change organizations towards more empowerment and abandon existing structures, we need to make sure that leadership still happens. Otherwise we might end up in chaos!
Hillel the Leadersheep :-)
P.S. The program for LKNA will be online soon. I already know large parts of the program, and I can guarantee it will be a blast! So stay tuned and save the date: April 28 - May 2, 2013 in Chicago. You can also follow LKNA on Twitter

1 comment:

  1. Empowerment, boundaries and trust are all interrelated. People need to be properly prepared for the trust and conditions. Setting the same boundaries from a new manager that is getting started as a manager that has been doing the job and learning and interacting for 15 years in the management system is foolish. I see the problem often as too little involvement by a manager. They should be coaching, which that can't do well without knowing the people involved and what is going on.