How digital transformations could benefit from grass-roots leadership

With transformations so often thwarted by internal barriers, businesses would do well to heed the century-old guidance of a pioneering management theorist and try empowering change from the shopfloor up
A young employees raises his hand to contribute in a meeting

Prolific digital transformations are a hot ticket, attracting visionary business leaders, ambitious middle managers and a host of coat-tail riders with their theories on how to secure a competitive edge with such projects. Yet, for all the insights these players may claim to offer, the secret to a successful transformation remains as elusive as Google’s ever-evolving search algorithm. According to estimates by Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group, KPMG and McKinsey, the likelihood of failure lies somewhere between 70% and 95%.

There are myriad studies explaining why these projects fall short of expectations so often. Most of them cite factors such as digital illiteracy and cultural resistance to change in the organisation – implicitly blaming grass-roots employees – but none will offer a winning formula for bucking the trend.

Could the solution lie in a concept that was proposed a century ago by a pioneering organisational thinker? Mary Parker Follett, one of the earliest management consultants, drew on psychology and developed a forerunner of human relations theory to revolutionise the study of organisational behaviour in the early 1900s. She advocated using the power of relational, rather than hierarchical, influence.

Grass-roots innovation

Follett believed that large organisations can be treated as a collection of local communities. She argued that the growth potential of a business will be maximised when these communities are self-governing to the fullest possible extent. 

Organisations should be viewed as local social systems involving networks of groups, according to Follett. In this way, a “self-governing principle” could be fostered that would aid “the growth of individuals and of the groups to which they belonged”. By interacting directly with each other to achieve common goals, members of a group “fulfilled themselves through the process of the group’s development”. Employees would thereby feel validated, integral to a given project’s success and perfectly placed to share their perspectives from the grass-roots level.

Follett noted that the more traditional hierarchical approach to leadership and management encouraged consistent damaging trends, especially acquiescence. This, she said, is the situation that occurs when the group lets the pushiest and/or most senior person have their way, thereby diluting the members’ collective experience. 

Her view was echoed nearly 100 years later by Rita Zonius, social media learning specialist at McKinsey, speaking at a leadership discussion hosted by the Digital Workplace Group consultancy in 2020. She referred not to the elephant in the room but the “Hippo” (highest-paid person’s opinion) – and the belief that this is automatically more valid than any other participant’s view.

Empowering employees

After he became MD of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group in the late 1990s, Steven Miller led a diverse team drawn from all parts of the organisation with the aim of transforming the oil giant’s European business. In doing so, he applied a leadership model based on Follett’s theory of ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’.

Having a diverse and fluid group of people, who can take on leadership roles when required and work together to help articulate purpose and direction, is invaluable

In an interview with Fast Company in 1998, Miller explained: “The leader may have a vision, but the actual solutions about how best to meet the challenges of the moment have to be made by the people closest to the action… Once the folks at the grass roots find that they own the problem, they find that they also own the answer. They improve things very quickly, aggressively and creatively, with a lot more ideas than the old-style leader could ever hand down.”

He could almost have been describing today’s ‘change champions’. These particularly engaged and influential employees – who can be found at any level of an organisation – are key to the success of any transformation it might attempt. Despite their pivotal cultural role, these enthusiastic evangelists are rarely asked to join project management boards and steering committees.

Wouldn’t involving grass-roots employees at the ideation stage of digital transformations – when business cases are drafted and solutions to potential problems proposed – give such projects a better shot at success?

In their 2021 book Nature of Work,  Paul Miller and Shimrit Janes discuss philosophies such as servant leadership and emergent leadership for adaptive organisational structures. 

They argue that “having a diverse and fluid group of people, who can take on leadership roles when required and work together to help articulate purpose and direction, is invaluable. Who takes the lead at any one time may change depending on the challenge at hand. Perhaps it will be a subject-matter expert for one project and somebody deeply embedded in the front line for the next.”

They’re not suggesting here that organisations should dismantle their hierarchies entirely. This approach is more about enabling a business to operate fluidly around its emergent objectives and empower those best placed to take charge of them at the time.

Adjusting to collective leadership

Any leader seeking to test this grass-roots model in their organisation must be ready to encounter teething troubles. That’s the view of Céline Schillinger author of the 2022 book Dare to Un-lead: The art of relational leadership in a fragmented world

In a podcast discussion with Miller and Janes in March, Schillinger explained that “un-leadership” requires courage. This approach requires you to acknowledge that no one person can possibly see the whole picture. You must therefore be brave enough to remove yourself from the centre, thereby enabling the process of collective leadership.

This would be a leap of faith for any leader, especially the founder-CEO who’s long called the shots with little consultation beyond one or two trusted lieutenants. It could also be a culture shock for the relatively junior front-line employee who may suddenly find themselves entrusted to play a strategically important role. But, given that your chances of a successful digital transformation are so slim, it may well be worth at least experimenting with Follett’s approach to leadership, even if you use a smaller-scale project as a test bed. What’s the worst that could happen?