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Freedom vs. Structure (and impact on performance)

Back 10/12/17
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    One of my favorite comedies, Office Space, touches upon the employee motivation topic - you can see that video clip here. The part where the main character says: “That will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired” is what, in my opinion, is the main problem of the management approach that is to this day dominating the corporate scene.

    Everyone wants to get their money’s worth, and in what I like to call traditional approach to work, quality is based on control by fear just like many other aspects of the world we live in today. The employees fear losing their job, management fears that someone is slacking and operations are inefficient, client fears that they are being overcharged for services.

    Fear comes from the lack of trust, which comes from distance (physical or philosophical/personality-based, culture-based,etc.). We all have fear of the unknown and unpredictable outcomes - this is why we create structure, to level the playing field, to gain predictability and consistency in output - in other words quality control.

    When you work in a small organization you get to know everyone, create personal contact and earn trust. This is why things function just fine even without processes, procedures and structure - people rely more on personal relationships than structure. In large companies, however, it’s simply not possible to get to know everyone and thus, we need structure (organizational structure, processes, protocols and internal policies) to ensure operational communication & coordination (efficiency) and control quality of output (deliverable quality).

 

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    What I mean when I say freedom is flexibility to work when, where and how you want. You can come to the office, you can work from home, you can work at daytime or nighttime, you can work one day 6 hours next day 10 hours - basically have freedom to arrange your time and achieve greater work/life balance. In order for things to run smoothly in such a setup you need a few things: team members need to have the right work ethics, to be reliable and have established trust, they need to be properly trained in communication and organizational skills , have a clearly defined expectations and goals and, last but not least, be motivated to produce desired results.

 

Performance monitoring

    In order to monitor performance with this level of freedom, you only need to look at one thing - the results of work, the output. The results need to be measured against clearly defined goals - there is no room for interpretation here since it’s the only metric. Therefore the pressure is on management and client-facing roles to get goals clearly defined, communicated and committed to internally, and need to ensure they are measurable.

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    Effort-based monitoring, the “old school way”, is easy to measure and compare, however it does not account for efficiency. Someone may be staying at work for 8 hours or even overtime to get noticed by management, but they may not have the skills, motivation or work ethics to work efficiently. If someone who is more capable of doing the same job in half the time, they will do other things in the meantime to fill their day, and this is how motivation, creativity and personal drive for success gets killed.

    When your output is conditioned by tight control of what to do and when to do it, that’s when your work becomes a “job” that you take care of. People do what's requested but don’t care how efficiently they do it and in this case as a manager you miss out on full potential of the person. Their career stagnates when they get to a certain level and through time, they lose competitive edge and self-confidence to the point where all they want to do is defend their current position at all costs, which can result in personal agendas, sabotage, envy, and other unprofessional and selfish attitudes that slow the organizational progress and development.

    If it goes uncontrolled for a long time the organization ends up with a high turnover at the bottom and a monopolized top of the organizational structure which ultimately leads to molded thinking and organization’s slow demise.

 

Motivation

    If you are asking employees for time, they will give you time, but if you ask them for results, they will give you results. Of course, I’m assuming here that management is objective and fair to the clients - that your internal and external moral values are not supporting the attitude of “the more hours the better - we get paid more”.

    Why go for freedom? If you give people freedom, in return you will get creativity, loyalty and unparalleled motivation. You get what you give, so, if you show people trust, they will return a favor and prove themselves as trustworthy. At times they may disappoint you, but they will be disappointing themselves primarily. If you give people freedom and flexibility to organize their time how they see fit, they will achieve better work-life balance, thus they will be happier. And a happy employee results always in a happy customer in the end.

 

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    There are certain dependencies, which can pose risks as each person that comes to your organization has had a unique history, experiences and training that shaped them. Some of your team members may lack proactive communication skills or time management skills, for example. The good news is that such a gap can be solved by proper internal training programs and constant, “unfiltered” feedback.

    If all performance is measured by how you do against set goals, there is a risk of poorly defined or communicated goals and expectations (scope, assumptions, constraints, acceptance criteria). That is a responsibility of both management and each team member individually. This is an important detail, since you cannot expect people to be happy in achieving goals that no one asked them what they think about. The individual buy-in is a must. It is crucial that the team feels that goal is achievable and yet challenging (as explained by The Flow Theory), because with freedom comes responsibility and the drive to achieve set goals is founded on motivation.

    Therefore management’s top responsibility is to keep the team motivated. This means clarity in leadership vision and alignment of marketing, sales, execution and HR strategies. It starts from the top by clearly defined strategic goals, portfolio management practices (project selection being the most important one), and definition of program and project goals that are in tune with employee professional development strategies.

    Of course, some structure must remain - on the level of operations, communication touch-points at critical project activities such as planning, schedule milestones and feedback points are necessary. In case there are project-related constraints in communication, such as geographic location and time zone difference, this will definitely reflect on minimum requirements and structure of project communication plan.

 

Transformation

    Too many times I’ve seen organizations that preach “agile” approach, while management and sales still operate with a waterfall mindset to create budgets and commit to deadlines. What they do is hire or train a “scrum master” and divide the work in even time-boxed iterations (sprints). What they end-up with is a waterfall software development model with communication model of SCRUM agile approach. Alas, in the end, the promise of SCRUM gets lost - that is to remove the pressure of imposed, external constraints and create environment for creative problem solving. It is fascinating to me how the top management in such organizations never asks themselves what would “going agile” mean to them. The way I see it that needs to be the very first step - the change needs to happen in the top management approach, both internally and externally.

    To implement a less structured and more creative environment a change on every level of organization is needed - the employees need to manage their own time effectively, they also need to get the “big picture” and account for all challenges of flexible working rules (i.e. “I will schedule this meeting earlier because a key person usually works in the morning, takes a break in the afternoon and doing it at nighttime will be too late for me which can impact project negatively”). The middle management’s role also requires a shift in mindset from “plan,control,act” cycle to “set goals,train,communicate”. While the top management needs to listen, empower and inspire. Further, all the leaders (in technical or business roles) need to set an example.

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    Everyone in the organization must be transparent, committed to goals and “sprinting” to achieve them. Without equal rules for all, buy-in of employees is not possible and thus motivation will be affected, resulting in bad performance and missed goals.

 

 

Bojan Kovac

Co-Founder & CEO

A computer science graduate with over 10 years of experience managing software projects and product development while leading organizational changes towards operational maturity and efficiency.