Taking Empowerment Too Far

I don’t think I ever came across a manager or executive who claimed that micromanagement is a good thing in all my years in the industry. Everyone knows that the “right” thing is to let your people have autonomy. As a senior executive, you likely already know that you shouldn’t be too involved in day-to-day decisions and that it is better to let the team make its own decisions. You might even want to be less drawn to the tactical level and focus on strategic decisions. That’s all great! But what happens when you take it to an extreme? Especially if done before the team has found its footing, it can be hazardous. Have you taken empowerment too far?

Lord of the Flies

Empowerment and autonomy don’t mean that you should just let the team be and disappear. I’ve seen this happen at teams where leadership had the best of intentions, but that doesn’t matter. Doing so can, at times, be bordering on malpractice.

How can you tell if your team is suffering from over-empowerment? The clearest sign might be noticing that the team isn’t exactly a team: rather than working together towards a goal, individuals are each working on what they think matters, without any bigger theme. It can also be apparent if the team has a hard time when it comes to decision-making. Without a clear strategy and values, how can they be expected to judge which direction is the right one for the company?

Similarly, organizations with these issues often have clarity problems manifesting in every aspect of the work. Every week or iteration feels like a complete 180-degree turn, and no clear momentum seems to be gained. People are constantly stepping on each other’s toes or, the other way around, assume that someone else is taking care of something that is, in fact, falling between the cracks. In general, if it doesn’t feel like the team is slowly making the flywheel go faster and faster, it often means you’re not working towards a clear strategy. You’ve created the tech equivalent of the lord of the flies.

Empowering Correctly

If some of the above descriptions ring a bell, you should consider adjusting your alignment efforts. It starts with the fundamentals of righting the ship and creating a culture of excellence: vision and values. Your vision and the strategy for getting there should be clear and known to everyone.

Each team should have a strategic goal that it is working towards. “How is that different from what I’ve already done?” you may be wondering. Well, merely providing the team with a high-level target might not be enough. For example, if you are using OKRs and believe that you can just tell a team to “increase client retention,” then you’re going to have a bad time.

After all, to reach that goal, the team can decide to do a whole bunch of different things. They can offer BFCM sales in order to increase renewals. Maybe they can put in place some dark patterns and stop sending renewal reminders before charging? Some SaaS companies send a special “value report” that shows a summary of everything that was accomplished prior to renewal to “remind” the client of the impact of the product. Another option would be to have the product team focus on features that aid clients that have been using the product for a while, thus increasing the odds of renewals. Lots of options to choose from! How can the team be expected to decide on a direction?

The above is precisely why you have to have a clear strategy as well as values that guide the entire company. I’m assuming that your values should help the team avoid using dark patterns, but what about the rest? This is where strategy comes into play. For example, offering sales might be off the table because it hurts a different team’s objective of increasing LTV. If your vision is to focus on smaller clients, maybe developing more advanced features is not the right way to go.

As I explain in The Tech Executive Operating System, I believe that the structure that best suits this sort of empowering culture is the cross-functional team that can work on a business goal end-to-end. It forces a company-wide way of forming strategy, though, and might require work with the entire executive team to achieve (if this sounds interesting, do check out the workshop I’m doing soon).

Another enabler for solid team autonomy is to ensure that the team can operate smoothly without outside attention. That means that they should have a clear way of making decisions and not get into a deadlock. Going back to our earlier example, if the team cannot decide which of the options above is the right one, they shouldn’t keep on waffling for days on end. Agree on a way for moving forward rather than getting stuck at an impasse. Is the PM the final say? Do you escalate? Whatever it is, make sure that the team won’t lose momentum on endless arguments.

If you’d like to get a master class about applying strategy and learning how to measure your team and yourself, check out my online workshop next month. Early bird tickets are now available!