Don’t limit empowerment. But create accountability by having transparency. #management

Help! I need accountability [image]

I often have discussions around the issue of accountability at work. 

My work deals with establishment of limits of authorities, internal controls, processes and all other stuff meant to ensure that organisational resources are expended wisely towards improving performance but without resulting in leakages or worse.

Frequently, the worry is when people have access to resources like money, they will squander them irresponsibly. When you have audit committees and other oversight and legal consequences, you naturally take safe and conservative positions in aiming to control amounts of authority and empowerment given to the rest of the organisation.

Unfortunately, this is a folly. It gives us a false sense of security that just because authority is restricted to but the very few at the top, then we have better controls and organisational performance.

The problem with concentration of authority at the top means that only the few people at the top of the organisation are authorised in making decisions for the organisation. The reality in today’s world is far from this. Because we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world, knowledge and capability to make correct decisions are far more distributed. No single person has all of the information… and most certainly the few people at the top don’t have all of the information, nor the capability, nor the experience on all issues that the organisation is faced with. This is true especially with large and complex organisations. And hence, when these few elites make those decisions – there is therefore higher possibility of those decisions being wrong. The risk to the firm is far higher when power and authority is concentrated at the top.

The best way to address this issue of authority and decision-making powers in a VUCA world, is to empower decision making throughout the organisation to the relevant levels that have the necessary information, knowledge, experience and the performance that needs to be delivered. This seems quite obvious and natural, but in real life – not always applied. The reason for this lack of empowerment and autonomy is because the powers at the top are not confident enough that the rest of the organisation will be accountable for the decisions and resources to which they were given. 

A simple solution to this is to increase transparency within the organisation several fold. Let me explain and contrast two different models of governance: the first is of the traditional concentration of control at the top; the second is an empowerment and technology enabled transparency model.

Let’s say that the board of the company is concerned about the level of travelling and entertainment that the organisation is incurring.

So in the first model of governance, in order to control these expenses (and also the undesirable side effects of these), the board decides to limit authorities to decide and spend. This will work in reducing such decisions and spend, but also at the same time clip the opportunities for the organisation, and at the same time create false sense of security when the board is influenced into a decision without knowing all information and it turns out to be wrong. This happens when the board has to make too many operational and administrative decisions that it has little time to go into each decision in great depth. Of course, to address this the board could decide to take more time and detail to go into great details of everything the firm aims to do – all while applying a mindset of skepticism of the management. This in the long run creates an unhealthy culture within the firm.

In my preferred second model of governance, let’s say the board institutes a governance model of transparency around travel and entertainment decisions and spend. This model of transparency requires all spend on travel and entertainment be published on the firm’s internal website which is accessible to all employees in the firm. This can be achieved with information technology solutions without having human intervention. With such spend being transparent to all parties – decision makers and individuals empowered with these decisions will be more cautious themselves in deciding and incurring such spend. Thus, in this model of governance, we create a culture of self regulation which results in greater level of organisational efficiency by dispensing with surplus internal controls, committees, and supervisory steps and units. In this model of governance, people who are empowered with authority will quickly develop attributes of accountability, simply because the things they do and the results that they achieve are transparent throughout the firm.

Thus, transparency drives accountability. Radical transparency drives radical accountability. The relationship is linear.

12 principles of highly adaptable, ethical and performing organisations #beyondbudgeting #innovation

innovation and management

As a member of the Beyond Budgeting Roundtable (BBRT) I have been studying management activities that encouraged or impeded performance and adaptability in organisations.

Initially, it started out with the dysfunctional effects of budgeting. We all hated the budget, yet many companies go through the annual budget process religiously with nobody even questioning why we do it.

I started to question the value of budgeting when many of our units within the organisation start to claim that they could not carry out certain (seemingly important) tasks because of the lack of a budget. Whilst this is a shocking thing to hear, it is not uncommon. Listen carefully, and you will discover that this is one of the most common “excuses” for not being able to do things.

But as I investigated further, it was not just about the budget. It had to do with the whole interconnected nature of management activities, including the way the organisation is governed, the way people are made accountable, the way we motivate people and as well as the way we plan and control the organisation. There are twelve principles that fall into these categories of management practices. It can be found on the BBRT website as follows:

12 Beyond Budgeting Principles (2011)

Governance and transparency

1. Values – Bind people to a common cause; not a central plan

2. Governance – Govern through shared values and sound judgement; not detailed rules and regulations

3. Transparency – Make information open and transparent; don’t restrict and control it

Accountable teams

4. Teams – Organize around a seamless network of accountable teams; not centralized functions

5. Trust – Trust teams to regulate their performance; don’t micro-manage them

6. Accountability – Base accountability on holistic criteria and peer reviews; not on hierarchical relationships

Goals and rewards

7. Goals – Set ambitious medium-term goals, not short-term fixed targets

8. Rewards – Base rewards on relative performance; not on meeting fixed targets

Planning and controls

9. Planning – Make planning a continuous and inclusive process; not a top-down annual event

10. Coordination – Coordinate interactions dynamically; not through annual budgets

11. Resources – Make resources available just-in-time; not just-in-case

12. Controls – Base controls on fast, frequent feedback; not budget variances

If you want innovation, you have to encourage independent thought

cannot solve problems with the same thinking - einstein

We live in an age where technology, customer expectations, and markets shift rapidly. Sticking with dogma and age old ideas, methods, products and services will no longer cut it.

Assuming that we believe in the above – and I would not be too far off the mark, I’d guess – then we need to be able to adapt, respond, anticipate these shifts before and as they happen. We need to be agile, and most of all we need to be innovative. We need to find even more effective solutions to old and new problems. What worked in the past will not guarantee to work in the future.

Innovation is the key to winning in the fast changing world.

But innovation is not just an activity. It is more than that. It is a mindset, a culture, a function that everyone plays – and not just some people in labs and research centres.

Like creativity, you cannot force innovation. Like creativity, innovation must be allowed to flow, naturally. The biggest enabler for innovation is allowing individuals the freedom to have independent thought.

The seed of a new idea would only come from a ground that is fertile with many different thinking. In groups of people, society and organisations – allowing people to think different allows them to explore new ideas, test new perspectives, find new solutions in ways never been thought of before. A social group that emphasises conformity over individuality will psychologically limit the collective minds. This is often the subtle tyranny of the majority.

A society or organisation that is conscious of these subtle effects will need to take steps to allow individuality and take these steps even further by bringing in people who would be expected to see things differently – given they come from different backgrounds and thus would naturally see things differently. Artists will see different solutions to problems than would engineers or accountants. People from different industries will see different ways to solve problems. This is vital in order to encourage innovation. Societies and organisations will need to infuse their own culture and groups of people with people from other backgrounds in order to create a much richer diversity of thought.

We need fewer detailed rules, and more common sense

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been in debates with my colleagues on the subject and merits of detailed rules and procedures.

Many established firms such as public listed companies often document every single policy, process and procedure in manuals that rival the Encyclopeadia Brittanica in terms of comprehensiveness. This is often the standard practice in order to achieve ISO certification, and to for the firm to ensure that every single employee conduct their day to day activities in a predictable and standardised manner.

New employees need only to pick up the relevant manual and ensure that they fully understand and memorise what steps, templates, forms and people they need to work with in order to complete a certain task.

This orderly and predictable state of work activity seemed to work well with many firms for decades. And in fact, many firms institute controls and initiatives to ensure that activities adhere to the procedures manual and that variations in the processes are reduced.

This is a typical assembly-line type of work environment. Predictable work processes result in predictable outcomes (products and services) with minimum variance.

So far, so good.

Then, the technology boom happened in the mid to late 90s. Technology firms seemed to burst out from nowhere and suddenly started to take the market by storm. Companies such as Microsoft, Netscape, Amazon and Yahoo! started to win customers over with products and services that never even existed a decade earlier. Some of these start-ups reveled in the organised chaos of youthful employees and start-up culture. Anything and everything was possible. There were no limits to what could be explored and rules were broken everywhere.

As the world fast approached the year 2000 (“Y2K”), demand for updated technology solutions escalated. In the end, Y2K was a non-event.

Soon after at the turn of the millenium, the dot com phenomena imploded.

Only a few firms emerged unscathed. But a change in the business world had already begun. All of this enabled by technology and the fast proliferation of the internet and web based applications.

Companies such as Google and Amazon continued to grow from strength to strength. Microsoft, still the top dog then, struggled to make sense of how to deal with the new competition; whilst firms like Netscape, Yahoo! and a whole host of other technology companies fade away as quickly as they burst into the limelight.

Google led the technology rush and the internet continued to premeate into every home, office, school and places for human interaction. With a simple business model and easy to use technology Google became synonymous with the web and with searching for information and knowledge. But even mighty Google was unprepared for the next wave of internet revolution in social networking.

Early web 2.0 champions such as Myspace started to capitalise on the innate human need to connect with other people. Realising that humans loved socialising and sharing their interests, the likes of Myspace and YouTube raced ahead to be the early winners of the social media space. But even they had not expected a Hardvard student would start building what today is the world’s largest social network from his dorm room. Today Facebook has close to 800 million users (circa Oct 2011), and the likes of twitter garnering around 200 million users by late 2011. Together, Facebook and Twitter have been credited – rightly or wrongly – with a significant revolution in how people connect with each other and the speed of how fast news and information is distributed to a wider population. Both Facebook and Twitter have been linked to social and political revolutions in many countries.

Then the Global Financial Crisis (“GFC”) happened in 2008. This plunged the world to the edge of depression. The world has yet to recover from this crisis, teetering from one economic malaise to another. All throughout this, changes have been happening: Apple suddenly introduced the iPhone. Back from the brink, Apple became the darling of the industry and the stock market. It has disrupted the phone business, and to some extent the PC business with its iPads.

Today we are on another verge of a major change in the world as we know it. Crude oil prices plummeted, technology continues its breakneck pace of development, economic power is visibly shifting towards the east, social dislocation is happening, terrorists organisations creating fear, political power shifting towards the right… many of these changes pose unpredictable outcomes. We have no way of anticipating how to set rules for things we do not know. We will be in a state of flux, and in such situations more rules just doesn’t help. We need more common sense. We need to get back to our core, and universal values and work with this. Time to bring about positive change, rather than reacting to negativity.