Organisations generate rules and guidelines to govern behaviour and to avoid problematic outcomes, but over time these rules can chip away at the sense of ownership, autonomy and accountability that we want to see in a modern workplace. Getting the balance right is hard, and in a period of change and uncertainty, perhaps we want people to act like explorers rather than just follow the guide-ropes others have laid down for them.

Matt Ballantine reminds us of the idea of Naked Streets, whereby removing street furniture and signs can – counter-intuitively, perhaps – increase personal responsibility and good behaviours, and asks how we might apply to the world of work in the form of “Naked Organisations”?

For example, whenever we face uncertainty at work, we are conditioned to look up to the hierarchy and ask for guidance from those above us, or try to identify someone with a job title that seems appropriate to decide for us. This often works, but it would often be a much richer learning experience to do our own “cave exploration” equipped with the tools we need, rather than just turning to the hierarchy for help. This kind of exploration can create a huge opportunity for developing soft skills like problem-solving, which are lacking in modern organisations and cost the UK economy alone £22 billion a year. Matt Ballantine captures this hierarchy obsession by saying:

”people can rely upon it [the hierarchy] as if it is fact, and absolute, rather than only one of the realities in play. This is why, for example, the naive often think people like PAs and receptionists are unimportant because they feature low down in the organisation.”

Perhaps we need a paradigm shift fuelled by personal responsibility and design thinking where employees have the freedom to explore, so that they develop the capabilities and skills they need to fulfil their roles.

While easier said than done, there are some approaches that can help us go beyond the current hierarchical default to an explorative “set the people free with the resources they need” tactic. One of these is to focus on the 3Cs: Capacity, Capability & Culture. Rather than restricting people to rules like “when you need budget approvals go to ABC” and “when you need new equipment go to DEF” we can:

  • focus on the organisational capacity, by introducing Agile working together with appropriate hiring strategies so that people have the capacity to go on this organisational journey to figure out how to resolve their own problems
  • focus on organisational capability, by equipping teams with capability maps, and development plans so that they can learn how to navigate the waters themselves to find the answers they seek
  • focus on organisational culture, by striving to create a workforce that naturally strives to solve problems, improve, get better, challenge the status quo and do the right thing for the organisation.

While there are benefits to challenging the default-to-approval approach, rather than encouraging Auftragstaktik, we probably don’t want to remove all rules and guardrails. There are too many misconceptions that digital organisations including Netflix, operate without any rules successfully and prosperously, but stating that these organisations do not have any rules is simply untrue. All organisations need some rules that support the business they operate. One compromise might be to build on the idea of Kotter’s Dual Operating System, where we maintain a minimum viable hierarchy to keep things running smoothly, while having flexible Agile teams and networks alongside it, leaving people the space to explore the organisation, learn, and become better equipped to cope with challenges.

To prepare the workforce for what the future requires, we need to find a balance between control and the freedom to explore, supported by the right organisational culture.

We need to study what nudge theory recommends in getting people to do what the organisation needs, supported by a balance of varying degrees of belief, boundary, diagnostic and interactive control as Robert Simon recommends with his levers of control framework.

We need to trust the people we hired, (or start questioning our hiring procedures) and support their development. It is unlikely that your employees would ever do your business wrong out of malice, but it is possible that they might cause the business harm out of negligence or lack of capability.

So, how will you make sure your organisation is ready to make tomorrow’s decisions?