Why empowerment could be your best defence against disruption

You won't see disruption coming, but your employees might.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Sep 2018

How do you defend against something you can’t see? This fundamental problem faces business leaders today, in all sectors. We all know disruption is coming for us, like a powerful wave that we can either ride or let crash over us.

What we don’t know is where it will come from and when, which is of course why better resourced incumbents so often fail to respond to fast-moving disruptors until it’s too late. In a sea of change, we are floating blind.

This doesn’t need to be the case. There could be thousands of people on your payroll who interact with customers on a daily basis, who understand their wants and needs, whose ideas could keep your firm relevant. They may just be your best defence against disruption – but are you listening to them?

It’s all very well saying your door is always open but it’s quite another to have a culture, and systems, that actually encourage and enable people to walk through.

This is one of the reasons that Agile organisations – those most likely to be on the winning side of disruption – practise employee empowerment: giving people the right to make decisions on matters that they understand removes the restraints on their creativity.

It becomes natural for employees not only to share their suggestions but also to act on them while the opportunities are still there. It becomes equally natural for their unique insights to reach the C-suite, because there aren’t a dozen layers of bureaucracy between them.  

Achieving empowerment isn’t easy though. You can’t just tell people they’re empowered. You have to show them, every day, that it’s okay for them to make the call.

This requires the right culture and-crucially-the right leadership. For the empowerment that underpins agility to be effective, leaders need to communicate, to engage and inspire, and also to enable the culture of collaboration, by what they do as much as by what they say.  

As French management thinker and business school professor Isaac Getz told MT, it requires the leader to ‘exhibit egoless behaviour, abandoning the need to control what’s going on or to have the right answer all the time’, which certainly rules a few well-known bosses out (naming no names).

Just one slip-up in that regard, one pointed glare over someone’s shoulder, can undermine the culture required to sustain empowerment.  

It’s important that leadership in an empowered organisation doesn’t just disappear either, as that risks command and control being replaced by a free-for-all, with everyone pulling in different directions.

In Agile firms, empowered employees are guided both by a shared vision – consistently articulated by the leader – and by frameworks that give structure to devolved decision-making.

Iteration with built-in feedback, for example, means that a novel idea becomes a quick, inexpensive and crucially time-bounded test, rather than a long and painful diversion. Seamless collaboration between teams and team members, meanwhile, ensures everyone continues to share the same vision.

If you have that – and thereby have the collective skills and wisdom of all your team at your disposal – change starts to seem like an opportunity, not a threat.

To learn more about how to implement empowerment and other Agile methodologies in a practical setting, from those who’ve been there and done it, book your place at the Agile Business Conference in London, September 26-27th using the code MTREADER15 for 15% off. .

Image credit: sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

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