I will be using ‘organisation’ in a very broad sense to include the workplace (though this will be my emphasis), family, political party, government, country and any other form of grouping where the diversity of thought from human beings with various backgrounds and understanding has to be harnessed by a few people in leadership to achieve a given goal. I am also using ‘leadership’ in a very narrow sense to mean the few people with positional power that the rest of us (followers) look to in the organisation to get us to achieve our collective and individual goals.
If you have been wondering why organisations do not achieve much with all the rich diversity of skills and talent, then we are in the same boat. My conclusion from much reading, however, is that simple; and below is why. In failed organisations, leadership tend to strategise autocratically; but when it comes to implementation they then want to democratically seek everybody’s opinion on how to actualise their decision they took alone without the input of those to be affected by that decision. This for me is the fundamental flaw in getting results and why most policies, strategic documents and programmes look good on paper and also make sense, but do not see the light of day to achieve the desired effect of adding value to our lives. We never move from the undesired current state we all do not want to the future desired state we all seek.
Instead of strategising democratically and implementing autocratically, we rather are strategising autocratically and implementing democratically. As the saying goes: “Once you have finished deciding what you want to do, what do you want from us…?” There are good reasons for getting all stakeholders involved in the initial stage of decision-making or strategy formulation, which I intend to highlight below while understandably trying to appreciate why we often do the reverse (strategising autocratically and implementing democratically); and when that may in very exceptional situations be necessary. Do not ignore the people.
The problem and solution lies with the people
Can one honestly think their kids do not know the family issues; can one honestly think their employees do not know the challenges facing the institution; can one honestly think the community members do not know the issues affecting them; can one honestly think the citizenry do not know what they want; and can one honestly think all these people do not know the solution to all these issues?
It does not take rocket science to learn the problems facing any organisation, ask the driver or security personnel and you will be amazed what you will discover. One need not have a Master’s degree or Doctorate to know when there is a problem. One should not ever think the employees or citizenry do not know the solutions to the problems; they just do not feel it is their ambit to suggest if not asked. To them someone is being paid to resolve it, and it takes humility for that person to seek their opinion. Try seeking their opinion and you will be amazed that what you were thinking of is exactly what they have in mind – plus more practical solutions specific to the situation, since they are in that particular environment.
As they say, “the problem and solution lies with the people”, and this is no exception – whether it is a family, community, association, country or workplace. For effective implementation, it is better for the solution to come from the people. Of course, leadership can facilitate the process; but once the solution is somehow perceived to have come from the stakeholders there will be little or no resistance to its implementation; and consequently they will not argue with their data.
No one argues with their own data
The advantage of getting all interested parties involved in the problem-identification and decision-making process is that people seldom argue with their own data. Once I am part of the decision-making process, not only do I appreciate the problem but I will make the solution work; and any decision that was made by us will be my commitment as part of a collective decision; hence, I will not argue contrary to it. In effect, I become an ambassador of the decision and a change agent. It is sad that invariably the so-called ‘boss’ who is leading because of the position he occupies feels too big to seek knowledge or understanding from the people. The ‘boss’ is in a dilemma how to get the people involved – “Will the people think I know nothing?” he muses.
The dilemma of positional power as leadership
Most often, those in positional power (bosses) somehow by default may have to automatically take up a leadership role, with them having a feeling that if they ask the opinion of others they are relinquishing power; or not justifying the perks that come with their position. Hence, they have a feeling of being the teapot with everyone else the tea-cup; and so they have to pour into us. That is, once they feel they are given positional power, then automatically wisdom is bestowed on them and they have all the solutions. Do not kid yourself Mr. positional power; your employees, community members and citizenry are an invaluable think-thank of solutions – use them! Get them involved in the initial stages of finding a solution and not as a last resort. Or else they will read into it and hold back their thoughts, watching you from the sidelines.
Of course, you are the boss and we all know that. Once you start reminding us who you are and forcing your solutions on us, then Mr. Positional power you have lost it – and you will fail. Are you going to implement your solutions yourself? Leadership to me is the ability to influence people into being committed and take ownership of the process for achieving a desired goal.
Just show the way and get out of the way. If you show the way and want to direct how to get there, then get ready to be responsible for the end results. If you want to pay people and do the work yourself, then it is up to you; do not blame anybody else. Give power to the people and they will give it back to you. Be a facilitator of the process. Getting people involved in decision-making is not a weakness but a strength. It gives diversity and perspectives you as the leader never thought of or envisaged.
Perceived cost of strategising democratically
We see it as a waste of time to get all interested parties who are one way or another connected with the issue involved. We want to avoid arguments and functional conflicts which are healthy for problem-solving. We then postpone the unpalatable issues to the implementation stage when the arguments and conflict will become dysfunctional. This is what most leaders do and feel.
It takes time and effort to get everyone to be part of the solution: cost of taking stakeholders out of the office over the weekend to brainstorm; avoiding heated debates because we see them as arguments; avoiding fierce conversations because we feel they can be disrespectful. For example, if it is a regional problem, bringing all relevant regional staff together is costly so we sit in Accra (Head Office) and craft a solution.
Most invariably to cut cost, the leadership – maybe the CEO and a few departmental heads – come up with solutions that look good on paper but may not practically fix the problem. Even if it can fix the problem, because inputs from the actual persons who are directly involved in the issue were not sought, there is likely to be resistance during implementation. The implementation cost will be higher if we choose to strategise autocratically. If we cannot implement, what have we achieved? The last resort is to bring in an expert consultant – which comes with its own issues.
The dilemma of the Expert Consultant
Expert consultants are brought in as a ‘magic wand’ to give what I call a ‘fast-food solution’. Almost invariably, the expert consultant without much diagnosis assumes a one-fits-all solution for a particular situation in a particular industry – forgetting that the people are different, cultures are different and systems are different. The expert consultant takes the solution envisaged by the ‘few wise people’ in the organisation, mixes it with some cut-and-paste from previous documents pertaining to the situation, and presents it as the solution. This ‘fast-food solution’ seldom works. Even medical doctors have to work with their patients for a complete healing. What if the patient is allergic to the prescription and you did not ask? Any prescription without diagnosis is a malpractice in any profession.
How many strategic plans – nicely packaged with diagrams, brilliant ideas, running into pages – are gathering dust because they were ‘fast-food’ solutions. It does not fit the culture, skill set, systems of that particular organisation, though it might have worked elsewhere. The plan by the consultant can only be implemented if the culture is changed, people changed, systems changed – because a ‘magic wand’ approach has been used and money spent with no value. Have you heard from the people saying that “this has been done before?” So, what is the way forward?
The Way Forward
For a lasting solution, in my opinion, the way forward to effective and efficient strategy formulation and implementation is to strategise democratically and implement autocratically. Get all stakeholders involved, benefit from diversity of thought, create planned functional conflict, engage in fierce conversation and facilitate the process – if necessary, through process consulting. This approach no doubt takes time, but the benefits are enduring: such as a more cohesive, energised team and change agents who appreciate the issues, feel commitment to achieving the desired results, know the way and how to get there, and need little or no supervision in achieving results.
Now this is the time for leadership to do nothing – just sit back and enjoy the organisation on autopilot cruising through the storm. Occasionally, check the dashboard to make sure there are no warning lights and only come in to give a few guidelines once red lights come up, and when your presence gives a confidence boost such as during takeoff and landing. The tools for navigating this process to the desired destination are good performance management and reward systems.
In exceptional cases, however, especially in times of crisis, there is a need to fire before aiming and deal with casualties later. At such moments, one may need to strategise autocratically and implement democratically because you – with the positional and/or expert power – see the imminent danger and know what should be done, but not necessarily how. You see what no one seems to see, so explanations for your decision will have to be later or else the whole organisation dies. We should be mindful that in such situations you, the person in leadership, should have built the trust and reliability needed to be followed blindly. We must be confident you know what you are doing.
Generally, in my opinion, it is better to strategise democratically and implement autocratically unless in times of crisis when the reverse may hold true; but even then, change management methodologies will still have to be invoked. Once we have all decided on what to do, there is no room for opinions when it comes to implementation, whatever opinion should have been made known during the decision-making period.
Of course, if the dynamics, parameters or environmental factors change, go back to the drawing board; but until then be autocratic and ruthless in the implementation stage, or else nothing will get done. Being in a leadership position does not necessarily make you a fount of solutions and wisdom. The people are a resource for solutions, listen to them and use them in adding value to the organisation. You will be amazed to learn what you have by way of your human capital.
The author holds a DBA (Leadership & Organisational Change) and is an Organisation Development Practitioner and licenced management consultant.