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Can you ever get empowerment right?

Consultants enjoy connecting through eye rolls of clients approaching them with asks of work on operating models (or even more narrow parts of those models like structures and governance) only for there to be a moment of discovery that there are some ‘people’ issues mixed in. It happens quite often in the sector I work in. So when I held a meeting with a potential client a few weeks ago and they talked about needing a whole system MOT, I was almost unprepared. Often, I have to work with them for at least half an hour to get on to what’s going on at the system level above their focus. Fortunately, we did end up identifying some people problems or I would have been denied of a moment of pleasure that takes place when you get a client to really tune in on the crux of their problems.

They explained to me “we’ve really been trying to make sure our people are empowered…that means we don’t tell people what to do…but now they won’t do what we want them to do and they won’t collaborate with one another.” They went on to talk about how much negotiation had to take place to get 3-4 teams to agree to work on a project together.

I’ve not yet worked with this client to find out what’s really going on above what’s summarised in the statements above. However, it evoked memories of a really provoking workshop I attended, run by Griff Griffiths of Cocomotion[1]Cocomotion website. We were talking about complexity and balance in systems, in the context of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, we used patterns and polarities that might exist in a school classroom[2]Rob Macloed. 2017. Helping kids name, define and articulate comlexity to explain it. Enlivening Edge Blog.

Cocktail sticks showing polarities

Each cocktail stick above represents a pattern (self-regulation, choice and fun) that exists in the classroom. There’s a black mark on the sticks that represents the balance in that pattern (in the case of self-regulation, the level of fun is at the extatic end of a dynamic spectrum and the opposite end would be boredom).

It’s likely some of the same patterns exist in the more corporate world of my client. The leaders have given the staff all the choice. They’re really enjoying what they’re working on, even if it’s not a priority for the organisation.

Trying out new ways of working takes a lot of strength for leaders in the heirarchical systems I work in. The temptation for them to shift the ‘level of empowerment’ pattern back to zero through reverting back to a command and control approach must be strong. But doing so would result in the problems those patterns and polarities caused before.

What these cocktail sticks and complexity thinking tell us is that we need to reflect on the patterns and experiment with creating the right balance. I don’t know what adaptive actions my client and I will take to shift to a more balanced place just yet. What I do know is that surfacing all the patterns to all the people involved will help them make sense of it (just like with the kids in the classroom). And that will mean they can co-create a work environment that’s better optimised for happiness and engagement as well as getting strategic priorities delivered.


References and notes

References and notes
1 Cocomotion website
2 Rob Macloed. 2017. Helping kids name, define and articulate comlexity to explain it. Enlivening Edge Blog.


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