Getting People to Solve Problems Without You

As organizations become more complicated, success can often be tied to the degree to which an organization is responsive to customers. This generally happens on the front line. So empowering front line managers to solve problems without going up through the chain of command is an important leadership strategy.

The September 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review has a great article, “Smart Rules: Six Ways to Get People to Solve Problems Without You,” by Yves Morieux, which provides useful advice to busy managers in large organizations. While he focuses solely on private sector companies, the insights and lessons he offers are clearly relevant to the public sector. This is especially true when it comes to implementing President Obama’s directive on streamlining services and improving customer service.

According to Morieux, “Today, companies, on average, set themselves six times as many performance requirements as they did in 1955. . . Back then, CEOs committed to four to seven performance imperatives; today they commit to 25 to 40.”

Morieux’s employer, the Boston Consulting Group, has created an “index of complicatedness” and applied it via a survey of more than 100 large U.S. and European companies over the past few years. He says: “The survey shows that over the past 15 years, the amount of procedures, vertical layers, interface structures, coordination bodies, and decision approvals need in each of those firms has increased by anywhere from 50% to 350%.” So, he concludes, complicatedness has increased by 6.7% a year, on average, over the past five decades. And government workers thought this only happened to them!

Morieux says: “This complicatedness exacts a heavy price. In the 20% of organizations that are the most complicated, managers spend 40% of their time writing reports and 30% to 60% of it in coordination meetings. That doesn’t leave much time for them to work with their teams. . . It’s hardly surprising that employees of these organizations are three times as likely to be disengaged as employees of the rest of the group. . . “ This seems to validate some of the findings of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, as reflected in reports by the Partnership for Public Service.

The Six Rules. So what do successful organizations do? Morieux says that they adhere to the following six rules. Interestingly, these closely parallel some of the work of the Clinton-Gore Reinventing Government efforts of the 1990s!

  1. Improve understanding of what coworkers do. People have to really understand each other’s work and they can learn it only by observing and interacting. “The manager’s job is to make sure that such learning takes place. Without this shared understanding, people will blame problems on other people’s lack of intelligence or skills, not on the sources and constraints of the organization.”
  2. Reinforce the people who are the integrators. “Conflicts between front and back offices are often inherent. Back offices typically need to standardize processes and work, and front offices have to accommodate the needs of individual customers.” The response should be to empower line individuals or groups to play that integrative role instead of creating coordination processes and layers.
  3. Expand the amount of power available. People with the least power tend to shoulder the burden of cooperation and get the least credit, so organizations should “. . .create new power bases, by giving individuals new responsibilities for issues that matter to others and to the firm’s performance.” At the federal level, Vice President Gore encouraged executives to give employees “permission slips” to act on their own.
  4. Increase the need for reciprocity. “A good way to spur productive cooperation is to expand the responsibilities of integrators beyond activities over which they have direct control.” . . . “Removing resources is a good way to make people more dependent on, and more cooperative with, one another, because without such buffers, their actions have a greater impact on one another’s effectiveness. Eliminating internal monopolies . . .increases the possibility for reciprocal action and impels cooperation. . . . “. . .the multiplication of corporate requirements . . .is arguably a transfer up the hierarchy of certain goals and accountabilities that should remain nearer the bottom of the organization.”
  5. Make employees feel the shadow of the future. “People are more likely to feel the shadow of the future if you bring the future closer.” For example, by reducing the lead times on projects or by assigning managers to “downstream” work (e.g., put product design engineers in charge of after-sales service of new products and make them responsible for the warranty budget).
  6. Put the blame on the uncooperative. A company modified its reward system by deciding that once a unit told other units it had a problem, the units that failed to cooperate in solving the problem would be held responsible for the delay. In the federal government, President Clinton shifted the burden of proof for waivers from the requestor to the granter of waivers.

Morieux concludes, noting: “Smart rules allow companies to manage complexity not by prescribing specific behaviors but by creating a context within which optimal behaviors occur . . . companies following smart rules are highly efficient in terms of the resources they use, because problems are solved entirely by leveraging, through cooperation, the skills and ingenuity of employees.”

In the government, we used to talk about value-driven, collaborative agencies vs. rule-driven, hierarchy-bound agencies. Even the private sector sees this difference as a competitive advantage!

Graphic credit: Eve Sob Blog

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Brett de Boisserre

Empowering front line managers to solve problems without going up through the chain of command is priceless to senior management. Every minute that a senior manager spends coaching a front line manager is a minute that the senior manager is not using to strategize. Empowering the front line manager is easy; however, the front line manager must have an innate confidence within himself to use that power prudently. If the front line manager has no confidence in his own power and there is a risk associated with his judgment, the senior manager must weigh the costs of what problems could arise by the front line manager and figure out if empowering that particular front line manager is worth it. For example, a front line manager coordinating relocating furniture inside of a government building is having little monetary impact if 10 desks are moved to the wrong office. However, a front line manager coordinating relocating 10 million dollars from one agency’s account to another agency’s account will have a large monetary impact.

Besides a lack a confidence, the first of the six rules “Improve understanding of what coworkers do” is relevant in this particular example – especially if the front line manager has a lack of confidence.

I really like the third rule of “Expand the amount of power available.” Once a front line manager has gained that trust, the senior manager needs to let them go manage. Besides, that is what they are PAID to do.

Terri Jones

Good stuff, thanks for the post! And, I like that it cuts to the meat of issues, like creating incentives (or disincentives) for good team behavior!