If you buy a young turtle and put it in a small aquarium, it will only grow to the size that fits the tank.  Somehow  creatures are aware of the limitations imposed on them. You see a similar phenomenon in many organisations. 

Organisations constrain their employees with rules, bureaucracy and hierarchy that stunts their growth and stops them reaching their full potential.  They become stunted, like turtles in a tiny tank.

Now, we all like to think of ourselves as good leaders to our teams and organisations and we also probably like to think that we are providing our people with opportunities to grow and develop.  

Part of our leadership role is to give our people the flexibility to ‘do the right thing’, allowing them to think for themselves and grow in the process, rather than constraining them by defining how they do things or where they can add value.  No one comes to work to do a bad job and I expect that many people in our teams can be innovative and resourceful given the freedom to do so.

Hopefully, the enforced change in how we work as a result of lockdown will have allowed people to challenge the status quo and influence how our organisations work moving forward.

Here are a few thoughts that may help you create the right environment and give your people the space to develop and help your organisation evolve at the same time.

Flexibility in your processes

This can be complicated, as often you want your people to follow company processes for consistency, but at the same time, not if it gets in the way of doing the right thing.  

Believe it or not, there are still many organisations that use paper-based processes, especially in the public sector and many of those rely on approval via a signed piece of paper.  I guess that many of these organisations have either ground to a halt, or are working smoothly as remote working has moved people to access an email as confirmation, or better still, they have digitised their processes out of necessity.

Often, the guidelines and policies that sit behind those processes are either so rigid people end up doing the wrong thing, or so complex, that people don’t even know what to do.

I used to manage a guy who worked away from home Monday to Thursday for most of the year.  So that he didn’t spend every evening on his own in a hotel room, he preferred to use Airbnb, but the company policy at the time only allowed for overnight stays in hotels that had to be booked via the corporate travel system….which usually cost more than his AirBNB.  This was the wrong answer for everyone involved.  It took a lot of effort to get that policy changed. Therefore, it is worth reviewing your policies and processes in light of ‘the new normal’ to see if they are still fit for purpose and enable your people to work in the best way given the current and future environment

Leading by example 

Your people are always watching and taking the lead from you as a leader.  Good or bad, they will follow your lead and work to the same values as you do.  This is not what you write in your vision, mission and social responsibility statements etc., but in how you act today.  Our parents used to say, ‘do what I say, not what I do’.  As leaders, we need to demonstrate we do both.

A good (or bad) example of this is that I once worked for a guy for a year, delivering a fairly challenging change programme with limited resources etc.  Although he often talked about success and the culture he wanted in his team, not once did he ask how he could help or take on a task to remove a roadblock for the project.  It is important that, as leaders, we are actively working for our teams, removing roadblocks,  and enabling them to deliver against their goals.

Enabling bottom-up change

Transformation and change programmes are hard and we all know that cultural and behavioural changes are probably the hardest.  What is often forgotten is that the enabling or supporting parts of the organisation are the most important ones to buy into the goals of the programme.

Nothing is more frustrating for the people driving business change to get dragged down by processes and risk appetites that no longer align to the new agenda of your organisation.

In one of my previous innovation roles, we had the mandate to ‘fail fast’ and ‘bring disruption to the organisation’ as ‘being an innovative organisation’ was one of the key strategic goals of the organisation.  And yet, no one told, or gave written approval to the working level procurement team that the organisation adopted a  new appetite to risk.

Never assume that because we have given our change teams and middle managers the mandate for change, that the enabling parts of the business received the message and  ‘top cover’ to also adapt.

Recognise and value employees when they do the right thing

Reward and recognition schemes, we all have them and use them to reward people in line with our values or KPIs, but are you rewarding people that ‘do the right thing,’ even if it is not part of a KPI or if it goes against company policy.

It is important to use these schemes to reward how  people went about achieving the goal.  This could be their innovation skills, the initiative shown, or most of all, the fact that they were prepared to challenge how things are currently done and proposed an alternative solution to a problem.

Of course, this requires you to have visibility of what is going on at a working level or to have a leadership team that lives and breathes the same values. It is therefore important to reward the intangible actions in our organisations, not just the outcome.

Overall, at a time when people are working from home, in smaller communities – a smaller tank – you must continue to allow your people to grow and develop, and oneway to stimulate this is to engage them in change activities and to give them the freedom and support they need to just ‘do the right thing’.