Some disjointed thoughts about empowerment ~ Sounds + Food 'n' Retail

Some disjointed thoughts about empowerment

power to the people.jpgDisjointed, because I don't have the time or energy to write a beautiful essay about empowerment—I'm not even 100% certain what it means yet. And in a way, by writing about 'empowerment,' I'm breaking the first rule, which is "Don't speak about empowerment." Or at least it seems that way. Currently, there's around 505,000 articles online about the term, which qualifies it as a hype and as such something that has already been discussed too much. But also, empowerment is basically about trust, a behaviour, and how can you talk about a behaviour, you just behave.

I think I first came across the concept, without even using that term. A few years ago, I read a book on ants, called "Emergence." It was a great book, I thought, about how ants at every level exchange signals, in the shape of pheromones, to indicate what they were doing and whether they needed help. A completely decentralised organisation, and the only thing the queen needed to do was produce babies, which, equivalent in business-talk, is, I guess, take care of human resources. I was so excited about it, that it became a research proposal for my master-thesis in strategic management, and was very quickly rejected, as I guess I hadn't related it well to strategy.

I again came across the concept last week, after reading an interview with the then-CEO, Dennis Bakke, and the then-chairman, Roger Sant, of AES, a power-company, which was, at least at the time of the interview (1998), very big on empowerment. And it seemed to work pretty well for them, if you look at their share-price, it rose pretty steadily up to 1998, and even more up to ca. 2001. Though, it hasn't been doing quite as well these last few years.

Reading the interview, I got the impression that empowerment is a religion, which in itself is hard to quantify into a set of rules. Essentially, at AES, it was (or is, I don't know) a system of open exchange flows; people could evaluate each other's performance, investment-decisions were decentralised and crowd-sourced, job-rotation was common, and micro-teams of ca. 10 people, focussed on different projects and tasks, were spread all around the organisation. And that seemed to work pretty well.

But there were also some downsides, such as that the company didn't work well with other companies—rather, it preferred a contractual relationship—and there were constant pressure to revert back to the traditional top-down model, from the public, share-holders, even employees. Essentially, every employee at AES becomes a kind of mini-CEO, which is clearly not something everyone is conformable with.

And the question is, and I haven't figure that out 100% yet, is how you come from that top-down view of human "resources," to a decentralised ant-like model? The key-word, which is equally hyped but seems to apply, is "delegation"—i.e. shifting executive responsibilities out to a team.

I think the problem of this is quite well spelled out in a recent interview with Brad Bird from Pixar, who was at one point confronted with a team that was demoralised. The former director had taken their work and evaluated it in private, giving written comments to individuals, not giving them a chance to give any input. And in order to turn that team around, he had stand in front of them for two months, evaluating the work, in public, and encouraging to take part, through questions. Two months, it took to go from the traditional model to one of empowerment, and just for that team.

The good news is that for start-ups, this is pretty much the way it should be from day 1. The bad news is that for big companies, or as soon as a start-ups grows bigger, the dissonance between people becomes larger and larger. And you have to—if you want to, at least—find ways to decrease that gap, probably most easily achieved through team-building after team-building exercise.

Anyway, not much more to say about this for now, but empowerment is cool, let's leave it at that.

Ah yeah, I forgot! I liked these interview questions, which were typical of an AES job-interview at that time, and made me think about my own opinion on empowerment:

  • Should everyone be treated equally? Explain.

  • What do you do when something needs to be done and no procedure exists?

  • What self-improvement-efforts are you making?

  • Recall a time when people around you weren't being entirely honest. What did you do?

  • What does "fair" mean to you? How important is fairness?

  • For what have you been counselled about the most?

  • What is the most difficult situation you have faced? What did you feel? How did you react?

  • Describe two important achievements.

  • Tell me about a time when a decision was needed and no supervisor was available.

  • What kind of rewards are most satisfying to you?

  • What does "fun on the job" mean to you?
I guess, this suggests that part of the answer to my question lies in an organisation's hiring practices.

The picture is of course of Che Guevara, who wasn't an entirely nice guy, but does stand for this whole "power to the people" movement.


 

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