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

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.

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