Management is evolving. Companies, governments, investors, collaborators, clients: all fight for one another’s attention. Each stakeholder is striving to engage with the others in a meaningful way, and digital channels make this both faster and more dizzying.
Within companies, top executives are hard-pressed to come up with a vision that is both novel and sustainable, to inject fresh blood while not rocking the boat too much. Then they’re dismayed at the lack of response from the organisation at large to contribute and to deliver. Can’t those people who clamour for excitement, meaning, responsibility, or benevolence see when these
things are being offered to them?
Younger employees are of two minds. They want both challenges and approval: a meaningful life and the means with which to live it, and a singular destiny that others can still relate to. They want to be employed, as it were, by parent figures who help them grow, but ultimately let them fly the nest. They want to feel out of the ordinary without it being difficult to own up socially.
Middle managers have it the worst. They need to keep the boat afloat in a damaged economy while it’s simultaneously being rebuilt with unfamiliar new materials and techniques, and old ones in disguise. They need to capture and retain the staff’s increasingly short attention spans, and interpret the elusive, shifting vision from on high, all while being incentivised, evaluated, promoted, and penalised within the original framework. They feel torn as a result and make up the bulk of burnouts.
“Dedication is mutual and freely consented.”
Each tribe feels like they’re counting on all the others, yet shouldering most of the weight, which is unfair. It’s tough and getting tougher. It’s bleak, lonely and lacking in trust, and not looking happy is tantamount to sedition. It’s not conducive to going the extra mile. All the while, we keep hearing that new methods are emerging…just not here.
Let’s go back to basics. Organisations are collections of people working towards a shared goal. Those involved must know, understand and approve of that
shared goal, how they contribute to it and what’s in it for them. A few years ago, we reached the end of an era when working well meant applying a best-practice process, and checking that others did too. Individuals and groups could maintain the illusion of being singularly in the right. Not so now. How you clarify your purpose, your strategy, your beliefs or your model cannot be done as it used to. Buying startups doesn’t turn you into an entrepreneur overnight. Most companies are undergoing this shift, so we won’t go into more detail.
Onto another neglected basic, then: people are not cogs. Groups do not just work through a well-oiled sequence of tasks; a band is not just the lead singer. Mapping out individual contributions over and beyond the jobs to be completed — like showing new people how it’s done, providing reassurance where there is doubt, and lightening the tone — need to be viewed as having the same importance as mapping skills. You need these factors to build a team that will find a way, that won’t crack under stress, that will remain loyal. You need interpersonal bonds, trust, people who feel beholden to one another. This is already happening all over the place, only in a covert way, on the grounds that behaviours can’t be fairly assessed and steered. They can. I do.
All that we’ve said so far is true of any group of humans: a sports team, an army squad, a choir. These are not companies. Companies are built on promises to deliver something. We said earlier that top executives needed to start thinking like entrepreneurs. They can rally people around them who don’t share the same drive (mercenaries, for instance), but eventually they’ll need people who do.
And that’s one of the ways I’ve been helping companies engage with their collaborators: by making the companies sparkle with intrapreneurship. Dedication is mutual and freely consented. You want people to consent to your organisation as an ongoing project? Consent to their own project as part of the whole. Make them intrapreneurs. Engage with them so they’ll engage with you.
How it’s done
Make it optional. That’s right. Everybody has different reasons for being there (game theory calls these engagement modes), such as making enough to see their kids through university, being intellectually stimulated, being acknowledged as responsible, helping others grow, and so forth. But not everyone feels always ready to birth and raise their own project. That doesn’t make them bad employees. Don’t forget that consent hinges on the actual possibility of saying no — let them. Some employees are slower, and will eventually hatch something; some lack self-confidence, and will be inspired by the example set by others; some will never join the trend but still feel inspired by its very existence; some will be called upon by those who actually have a project. Embrace diversity.
Make it bottom-up. Absolutely any collaborator can put forward their own project. No one is too insignificant or too important to be denied this right — top managers can have their pet projects too. No project is too ambitious or too small to be squashed. Have a dream. What would you like to see happen? New furniture in the cafeteria? A new logo? A new product? A new business model? A new management framework? Step up.
Make it accountable. The cornerstone of each project is the benefit case: what does this idea bring and to whom, and on what timeframe? How do we know whether we’re getting those benefits on track? The only criterion on which a project is judged, then, is whether the benefit case is achieved or not. Next, the necessary effort is assessed: skills, toolset, people time, machine time, office space, external assets to buy and so forth. But how much it costs is not a criterion; what is, however, is whether it foreseeably supports the benefit case.
Make it modular. Most projects are better off split into minimal value steps, that is, self-contained levels of achievement that make it possible to account for team fatigue, lessons to be learnt, availability of rare resources for other projects, digesting time for a major change, build-up of user ownership, etc.
Make it fair. Any number of projects can be pitched. They’re not in competition, as they have different priorities based on their respective benefit cases. Projects are not pitched to a closed committee of big bosses with lots of political toes to step on, but are available for everyone to view on internal social media, pitched to the “states general” of the organisation: representatives of the young and old, the low and high, the newbies and the old-timers, the ones from the company we just absorbed…the states general will be able to debate, modify,enrich, suggest merging the idea with another project, or splitting it up into more chewable mouthfuls, and sometimes reject, and this response will be reached as a consensus with the project owner.
Make it mandatory. The owner commits to delivering the agreed benefit case on time, and the organisation, through the states general, commits to supplying the agreed means on time. Both parties commit to reviewing the level of benefits reached on each step, as compared to the benefit case, and decide what the next level of ambition will be.
This is how I’ve been making every willing collaborator an intrapreneur, contributing to the whole in a way that is meaningful to them. This is how to vest interest in a common good built together. This is how to attract and retain talent. This is how to foster a sense of belonging. This is how parts of a machine are turned into ships in a fleet. This is how to invigorate corporate strategy. This is how to learn to collaborate (literally “work together”) again. This is how your organisation sparkles.