December 5, 2012

Ideological Control, Operational Autonomy

From where I was standing at the counter I could see signs for the restaurant's employees that someone probably believed they had posted away from the public eye. I couldn't completely make out the first few signs, but they seemed to represent steps in the customer service process. The final sign was in my direct line of vision and was the one that captured my attention: Customize Your Hospitality.

Great advice indeed. Whether the motivation for offering it was an insightful shift manager or someone tired of the incessant "You want fries with that?" mockery regularly seen in situation comedies, it was a useful instruction.

What I like most is that it balances standardization (all employees are expected to be hospitable) with the opportunity for individual personality and creativity (customize what you say and do). Similarly, Disney expects all of its employees to "create a little magic today" but leaves it to their good judgment and discretion about how to do so.  It's what Jim Collins calls ideological control coupled with operational autonomy, and it's a powerful approach.

In his most interesting book, Whoosh: Business in the Fast Lane, author Tom McGehee, Jr. explores this dichotomy through his framework of compliance vs. creation. Compliance companies or cultures use policies, procedures, and rules to ensure consistent and standardized responses. Creation companies and cultures use principles and values with to produce inventive responses.

Neither is inherently good nor bad. You have to determine the right mix of compliance and creation for the business you are in, the members or customers you serve, and each activity or effort in which you engage. Take flying for example. Southwest allows its flight attendants some creativity in the standard announcements where almost every other airline seems to view that task through the lens of compliance: same message every single time. Which approach captures your attention more? But when it comes to maintaining the plane, I'd prefer mechanics who are more compliant than creative with maintenance procedures.

So many institutions and organizations are trying to elicit more engagement and passion from their members, customers, and employees, yet still operate with an overall organizational culture that demands too much compliance. Engagement and passion come from the heart. The heart is inspired when individuals have the chance to create, not just comply. If I don't get to inject a little of me into the work I do, is it any wonder that I will feel disconnected from the work itself and potentially the organization I serve?

People are capable (and in most cases willing) of giving so much more of themselves than we ever ask them to share.

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