Management must step back and give employees freedom to act within an overall vision, writes Rod Newing
Modern businesses are disrupted by rapid changes in customer needs, fashions, social trends, economics, governments, mergers, supply chain and technology. Success in such a fast-changing world comes only to agile organisations.
An agile business has a clear overall vision, which endures through the constant changes. It empowers staff, constantly experiments, tolerates errors and regularly re-organises itself. It achieves its objectives through informal self-organising project teams that work closely with suppliers and customers.
“It is in times of adversity that some of the greatest innovations have appeared,” says Stephen Archer, a director at Spring Partnerships, a business consultancy. “In today’s straightened times there is a healthy pressure to differentiate, become more competitive and establish more intrinsic value in the organisation. This does not come from exhortations by the chief executive, but by establishing a culture of freedom to think and innovate.”
The key to success is no longer telling people what to do, but encouraging them to spot new opportunities and unforeseen changes and then implement their own successful solutions. This requires an entrepreneurial attitude in staff, which is often referred to as “intrepreneurship”.
The organisation’s overall vision and focus on the customer are the glue to hold everything together and prevents chaos. Management helps by stepping back, but encouraging and supporting.
“I often say ‘we can do anything– we just haven’t yet worked out how’, and that attitude has rubbed off on the team,” says Clive Birnie, managing director of Severn Delta, a manufacturer. “The keys are in giving people space, trust and a safety net to be creative. Give them power, but also the reassurance that if their idea isn’t successful they won’t be blamed.”
Creating an intrepreneurial culture must begin at the recruitment stage. Ashley Ward, a director at European Leaders, a recruitment, consulting and coaching company, says that entrepreneurship can be recognised when candidates get fired up about doing something, not simply wanting to be someone.
Key to success is encouraging [staff] to spot opportunities
Many traditional structures and processes need to be changed. Matt Crosby, head of business solutions at management consultancy Hay Group, says that knowledge must be managed differently; corporate planning recast; new processes installed to drive staged investment in taking ideas to fruition; and a new talent management procedure, from recruitment to matching talent to where key decisions are made. “Innovation doesn’t come from an exceptional leader waving a magic wand,” he says.
Whereas traditional organisaions have a suggestion scheme that rewards staff, an agile company encourages intrepreneurship by letting them implement their ideas themselves. At global services company Ricoh, ideas from individuals go to the board, which agrees a budget; the employee then manages his or her suggestion from start to finish, forming a cross-functional team to deliver it within the wider company framework.
“We develop tailored training schemes to help staff recognise internal opportunities,” says Rebekah Wallis, the company’s human resources director. “It provides a platform for them to further develop their entrepreneurial skills and helps with staff retention.”
Professor Vlatka Hlupic of Westminster Business School says that selforganisation results in “communities of passion”, often using social media. They allow people to pursue projects, initiatives or topics that they are very knowledgeable and passionate about.
The downside is that if the overall vision isn’t clear enough, people could go off at a tangent. Professor Hlupic warns that too many people could pursue too many interesting things that have nothing to do with the strategy of the company or what its customers want. “They may be very innovative,” she says, “but pursue things that may not result in any commercial benefit.”
Another problem is if key intrepreneurs who are hard to replace want to flex their newfound entrepreneurial flair by setting up their own company, possibly even in competition. Peter Cochrane, a futurologist, says the employer should encourage them, take a stakeholding and even give them their first order. “It stops them becoming a competitor and makes them an evangelist for the company,” he says.
In today’s tough marketplace, organisations can only get an edge through innovative and creative staff who can find new ways to work with customers. Developing an entrepreneurial culture is vital not just for profitability - but survival.
Grow the employee, grow the company
As a service organisation, it is essential that Accenture helps its staff to maximize their ability to satisfy its clients. One of its tools is a series of formal and informal mentoring programmes to support them in all aspects of their lives.
Every employee is assigned a career counsellor. “They help to shape and grow the employee, navigate their career, decide the next career move and find a path to success,” says Suzy Levy, the company’s human capital and diversity lead for UK and Ireland.
New employees are encouraged to select their own peer ‘buddy’ to explain the culture, the unwritten rules and the way things work. It helps them to get a solid start. Employees are expected to select several appropriate mentors, to deal with different issues as they arise.
There is also reverse mentoring, where members of minority groups share with managers the issues they face, to help ensure an inclusive working environment. “Line managers coach people so that they are confident and capable in their role,” says Ms Levy. “But staff can raise other issues with mentors. Mentoring is a little like dating, you need to have a chemistry between individuals, based on shared passions, so there is a spark.”
Mentoring extends beyond the working life. In one example, an employee suffered long spells of ill health. Their mentor helped them to look at the issues causing it and two years later the employee completed an Ironman triathlon.
Ms Levy is personally mentoring more than ten employees. She says that mentors get pleasure from seeing people blossom and grow. It also gives the mentor the ability to see the organisation, and the world, from a different viewpoint.
“The flow of ideas to support our clients is fundamental to our success,” she concludes. “There is as much, or more, to be gained from people coaching, supporting and mentoring each other than from any methodology.”