As businesses grow, role definitions often become more rigid. And management usually follows suit. New employees join the company and learn their role, with very well defined views of what is expected. Some of these expectations are useful and valuable, but many run the risk of veering into “stuff you have to do, don’t ask why, just do it.” As these expected tasks pile up, innovate gets stifled (and maybe productivity).
It could be as simple as a key metric for an activity that has to be done in a specific time window to “count.” While it might be more effective to do the activity at a different time (with more focus and depth), executing outside the window doesn’t count. So implicitly, new employees are potentially being discouraged from being more effective.
It could be more complex. Something like exploring a new idea, testing a hypothesis, or in some other way “going against the grain.” If the role definition is rigid, this is likely to happen less. Restrictive role definitions are just that, restrictive. People may want to be innovative, but the penalties or sheer weight of oppressive management may stop them in their tracks. I experienced this personally several years ago. I worked at one of the biggest companies in the world, with a management structure that was built around conformance. When I left and went to a more empowering organization, it took time for me to adjust. My manager finally said, “Hank stop asking for permission, just do what you think is right and important. We trust your judgment.” That simple statement (thank you, Sydney Sloan), changed my whole career trajectory.
These patterns are nothing new. The evidence of the value of empowering employees to do what is needed in customer service and other areas is overwhelmingly positive. But many organizations find it hard to truly enable that or execute it. Whether it be managers not comfortable with leading in that environment, lack of confidence in people making the right decisions, or inconsistency driven by a mix of both; there always seems to be a pull for control fighting the push for empowerment.
And it happens even if we say the right things. “Do what’s best for the customer” is the spoken word. But the battles for raises, bonuses, and promotion are fought over more tangible measures and metrics. And that is the challenge, since not everyone is close enough to understand the little impacts of empowerment (the big ones shine through regardless). It leaves people feeling stuck. It makes a great job a good job–or a good job a chore. For the superstars, it is no big deal–they are given more flexibility. But the for everyone else, it is a challenge, as their efforts to go against the grain will be met with added scrutiny.
We often talk of best practices, but best practices are formulas for being the same. Best practices are safe. Next practices push the envelope. Next practices are dangerous.
From a vendor side, as you are working with clients, it is important to understand these organizational attitudes and the implications on the people doing the work. If you are proposing an innovative, game changing idea or project into an organization that is about control and caution, you may hear the right things (“we want to change, we need to change”) but see behaviors that indicate just the opposite. Does your customer want best practices or next practices? Dig deeper to discover which it is.
These situations could be the source of those opportunities that never seem to leave the pipeline. Be aware of them. Work with the buying team to explore the implications through pre-mortems.
There are all kinds of reasons why organizations build structures to make it clear what is expected. But if that gets in the way of doing what is needed, a culture of complacency grows. When that happens challenges arise everywhere. When you see that happen, be thoughtful about prioritizing your own efforts and looking for ways to break free and to help the people you work with and your clients do the same.
There is a time and a place for everything, but I’d strive to err strongly on the “do what’s needed” side of the street.
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