Genuinely empowered teams offer many strong benefits to an organization. Distributed decision making increases the capacity of a development organization. Creative problem solving at the team level fosters innovation. Adaptation to new learning is faster at the team level than at the stakeholder level. Fully engaged team members invest more in the success of their projects.
Many teams fall into the trap of doing merely what they are asked to do. Such teams are not empowered. Operating as an empowered team requires going beyond the ask and making decisions that a stakeholder would make in a more traditional management environment. Successful team empowerment hinges on robust stakeholder delegation of decision making to the team.
How can a team meet stakeholder expectations when those stakeholders do not participate directly in the decision-making process? The team relies on a strategic vision from the stakeholders to guide its decisions. Stakeholders must formulate and communicate to the team a clear and singular strategic vision and work with the team to foster good alignment. Teams need to engage stakeholders on an ongoing basis to maintain a full understanding of the vision. High transparency around team decisions also helps team and stakeholders diagnose and correct misalignment when it occurs.
Team decisions sometimes produce outcomes contrary to stakeholder objectives. When that happens, many stakeholders assume that poor decision making at the team level is at fault, and take immediate corrective action with the team to discourage decisions that produce undesirable outcomes. Yet poor decision making is only one of many underlying factors in those outcomes.
Going beyond the ask invariably produce some outcomes that stakeholders do not want. It’s imperative to limit the negative impact of these decisions. Before looking at team decision making, stakeholders should ask themselves a number of questions about factors related to their vision and expectations:
- Have the stakeholders formulated a clear vision?
- Have they communicated it fully to the teams?
- When there are multiple stakeholders, does each of them convey the same message to the team?
- Do members of the team understand how stakeholders judge alignment with the vision?
- Are stakeholder expectations realistic?
When stakeholders skip these questions and jump straight to corrective action over misaligned decisions, assuming that the fault lies in decision making at the team level, teams predictably learn to do what is asked, rather than going beyond the ask and engaging their full capability to innovate in pursuit of the vision.
Innovation requires going beyond what stakeholders want, and some amount of error is the price for that innovation. Leaders who provide and maintain a clear and well-communicated vision to teams, and accept occasional errors as the price for innovation, empower teams to deliver maximum benefits to customers and the organization.
Written by William Baxter