Getting Real About Freedom

Bag of time (2)

There’s a huge confusion that’s causing a lot of pain in organisations.  It’s the idea that ‘freedom‘ means ‘freedom from consequences‘.  It doesn’t.  It means ‘you get to choose, and the consequences are yours‘.

Freedom is not liberty or licence.  It’s not escape.  A person becomes free when they are willing to stand up and say ‘this is my situation, I am taking ownership of it, and of whatever happens next.’  The moment this occurs, choice comes back into play.  The boat gets a motor.  The hot-air balloon’s fire-thing starts up again.  We have agency, and it feels good.  Energy.

This is the principle we use when we help our clients with how their organisations are designed and lead….that people want freedom.  They want choice.  They want a level of challenge that pushes them without blowing their minds.  And they would like to know how things work so they can make more informed choices.

Leaders at all levels have the opportunity to give people freedom.  But it’s not always taken.  It’s hard to trust, and decades of high control leading to unaccountable behaviour simply reinforces this, and it’s not just the managers.

So how do we create freedom?

Through conversations and other communication that creates clarity for all on who is delivering what, and how roles fit together.  And decisions when decisions are required so people can get on with it.

People cannot make choices about their own way to get things done if they don’t know what ‘done’ is or how things work.

But above all, this requires a willingness to trust again.  This is the hardest part, and it applies to everyone.  For managers, it’s trust that people will take ownership.  And for employees, that their managers will let them take ownership.  This is the foundation of any successful enterprise.

Clarity and trust.

Pre-requisites for freedom.


Letting them know what you want is NOT micromanaging

There’s a reason I don’t get into paintball much.  Part of it is, of course, that I’m not that good at it.  But that’s not the main reason.  The main reason is that I’ve never had the chance to be part of a team where someone in it really knows what they are doing.

I want someone to say something like this:

“OK everyone, this is about taking that flag over there.  So here’s what we’re going to do.  Adam and Tim, when the whistle goes, you head straight to those logs, get in behind and wait.  Sarah and Terry, once Adam and Tim are there, you go over behind the trees on the right.  Adam, when they get there, pop up and lay down some covering fire, Tim that’s when you head toward the barricade.  Now, it’s all going to go wrong at some point, so when that happens, stay low, and make your way to the left.  Just keep left until we can regroup.  Keep listening for me, I’ll keep us on track, and if I go down, Sarah…you take over”.

Or something like that.

And, of course, if I’ve got some ideas, it would be great if they’d have listen.  But I want a plan, and I want to know what I need to do.

You see, I feel fairly useless playing paintball because I lack the knowledge of what to do and the skill in how to do it.  But I’m not actually useless.  I might be well past young, but I can run, I’m coordinated, and I know how to aim and fire.  And I like to have a go.

I just need a leader who can put me to good use.

Then I’ll be more valuable.

And funnily enough…we’ll get more done, and we’ll have a better time.

Letting your people know what you want them to do is not micromanaging.  

It’s just managing.  And it’s why you’re paid.

Stop happying and start helping


“HAPPIER EMPLOYEES ARE MORE PRODUCTIVE” screamed recent headlines as a study from the University of Warwick hit the streets.  Music to the ears of some HR practitioners who see their role as Entertainment Officers with the responsibility of making work fun for employees, rather than their actual role of assisting managers to provide the conditions to lift productivity.

I don’t think the study is necessarily wrong.  An employee that does not feel that their organisation respects them, that can’t trust the organisation to not cause them harm, and who gets treated in a way that does not feel fair is never going to put their best effort forward.  And they’re not going to be happy.

But to conclude from the study that organisations should provide chocolates and bean-bags or offer free meditation sessions for every employee is simply not valid. Read more…

How to take the confusion out of your people’s career development

Crowd cheering

There is a simple way to sort out the career development of your own direct reports – stop doing it!

Asking a manager to take accountability for both the output and behaviour of their people as well as considering their future aspirations is asking a lot.   But….people knowing that the organisation has someone concerned with their future beyond their current role (even if it means not leaving the current role)  is a key part of creating the trust that ultimately sees people being willing to provide their full commitment.

So who is that someone?  We use the Manager-once-Removed, put forward by Elliott Jaques in a number of his works.   The Manager-once-Removed, or MoR is your boss’s boss.  Your skip-level manager.  We make each MoR accountable for building the pool of talent that sits below their own people,  that is their skip-level reports.   Read more…

The highest returning recognition program I know


Recognition programs.  We make them hard.  And we make excuses.  Meanwhile our people, who are actual human beings, would simply like to be recognised for what they are doing.

So while you’re waiting for the ‘reward and recognition program’ which you know is never going to emerge,  lets get on with it.  Here’s a simple recognition program that simply works; it has the highest rate of return I know:

  1. Hand out a block of 50 post-it notes to each manager
  2. The  use of them is for their people to unexpectedly find, whenever they have done something that was particularly effective, a post-it  on their screen saying  ‘great work on [INSERT CURRENT INITIATIVE], thank you’.
  3. Inform each manager that the block needs to be used over the coming 12 months, and it has to be for actual effective performance.

That’s it!   Read more…

Hard feedback? Time to care


Managing can be a schizophrenic job  – you need to set clear expectations for your people, and if they are unable to reach these expectations after due attempts to help them, you need to remove them from the role.  But at the same time, if you need to remove someone from the role, the person who has failed in helping them reach those same expectations is….you!

In other words, if you do your job right, you might have to sack someone.  And if you do your job right, you might not have to sack someone. Read more…

Connect what to who (not how)

ETSA Building 2

Tom Foster writes Management Skills Blog, one of the best going around on organisations and management.  I always urge my clients to sign up, please do yourself a favour and do the same.

One of my favourite points of Tom’s is  “it’s not about how, it’s about who“.    This simple phrase goes to the heart of a change in thinking managers at all levels can apply if they want to provide better value-adding leadership to their people.

A manager who is spending their time thinking about how their people need to do something is not actually doing their full job.   This is for a simple reason – managers are paid to exercise their judgement on what needs to be done in their area to fulfill the needs of the organisation, then decide who is going to do it.

An example Read more…

The simple step to improving cross-functional relationships

Cat Stone

Something actually quite strange, but common, are Finance areas taking ownership of profitability for an organisation.  You will hear comments like “March should be a big month, which will make Jim (CFO) happy”, and you’ll hear Jim saying things like “my money” and “that’s good for my bottom line”.

We see the exact same thing when HR departments take ownership of culture or employee engagement.

This comes from a good place, from Read more…

Why Mick Malthouse is having fun


I think Mick Malthouse is having fun.  Mick is the coach of  Carlton, a team in the Australian Football League which is the top competition in the land.  He took on the job this season and I think overall he is having a good time due to two structural reasons that are useful for us to pay attention to.

The first is clarity of accountability.  I doubt Mick has Read more…

A real strategy


Recently, I heard a strategy that was fantastic.  It was an outsourcing strategy, and was quite simply “if it can fit on a truck, we aren’t building it“.

Why did I love this strategy?  Because it was actually a strategy!  It wasn’t a purpose or intent, an objective, nor was it a plan.  It was a strategy.

A strategy is nothing more than a sentence or three that sums up the approach or philosophy that we are going to use to guide us in achieving an intent.  It gives us the filters that we can then use to make decisions.  Look at the outsourcing strategy I referred to above. Read more…