empowerment; only partly good

This osprey lived near our place on the Sunshine Coast.

This osprey lived near our place on the Sunshine Coast.

Vocational communities are characterised by self-management (see previous post). Most people assume this is about empowerment. But as Frederic Laloux explains in Reinventing Organisations (p137), self-management is much more than that. If employees need to be empowered, it is because power is concentrated at the top of the organisation. Empowerment is the process by which those who hold power, delegate its use to those lower down in the organisation. Self-management happens when decision-making rights are distributed and held by everyone.

Make no mistake, empowerment is a great improvement on the authoritarian hierarchies of most organisations. Empowerment is the healthy processes whereby people have the capacity to give input and shape the decisions that affect their work. But the authentic self-management of vocational communities is something entirely different.

Allowing anyone in the organisation to make any decision sounds completely ridiculous from within the conventional organisational paradigm. Surely it is unworkable in practice. When Dennis Bakke was CEO of AES, a global power company with 40,000 employees, anyone could make any decision including: what they did, the salary they took, investment decisions … The mechanism used for decision-making was called the Advice System. In essence, it was mandatory to seek advice for any decision that affected others. Obviously the bigger the decision, the wider the consultation. The nature of the decision dictated the kind of expert advice sought. Importantly though, no one, not even the CEO could veto a decision.

Bakke recalls the story of Shazad Qasim a recently hired financial analyst who sought advice from him about relocating to Pakistan to expand AES’ work into that region. Bakke was sceptical given the market research the company had already conducted which had concluded AES would fail in Pakistan. However, Qasim designed a role for himself and (with extensive advice seeking with Bakke and the board) decided to invest $200M in a new power plant. Clearly this is an extreme case, but I share it to illustrate that this approach is not “Mickey Mouse”. It unleashes innovation unimaginable in conventional hierarchies.

Extraordinary injustices still exists in our society but most are widely acknowledged. In the workplace however, it is still considered, not only normal but necessary to limit the influence of voices. Self-management is not about unleashing foolishness; it is about a profound acknowledgement that extraordinary intelligence and competence is untapped in conventional organisations because of the restrictions the power hierarchy imposes on people’s ownership of the outcomes and their capacity to implement their best ideas.

It need not be so, but it will take some courageous leadership effort to change it. The future belongs to vocational communities.