Ideological Control, Operational Autonomy



From where I stood 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, 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 expectation of a core value commitment (all employees will be hospitable) with autonomy for individual personality and creativity (customize what you say and do). Similarly, Disney expects all of its employees (cast members) to "create a little magic" but leaves it to their good judgment and discretion about how to do so. The goal is a strong culture committed to a shared why, not an unquestioning cult executing the same how.

It's what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras describe as ideological control coupled with operational autonomy, and it's a powerful approach. I often use a Hoberman sphere to illustrate it.  The closed sphere represents the organizational core (values + principles) you wish to preserve, and the open sphere shows how that core has ample room for individual contributions to it, ones that reflect (and are informed by) the shared values and purpose.

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 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 the desired results for 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?
Yes, the safety videos in recent years have changed this a bit, but look how look it took for that to happen.   When it comes to maintaining the plane, however, 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, volunteers, and employees, yet still operate with an overall organizational culture that demands too much compliance.

We need more organizations to consider a staff and volunteer selection principle like this one from design and innovation consultancy IDEO (among others):  hire (select) for cultural contribution, not cultural fit.  This allows for unity (in a shared commitment to core values) and diversity (in individual perspectives on amplifying and applying them).

Engagement and passion come from the heart. The heart is inspired when individuals have the chance to create, not just comply, something Dan Pink affirmed in his book on motivation and performance, Drive. If people don't get to inject a little of themselves into the work they do, is it any wonder that they will feel disconnected from the work itself and potentially the organization they serve?

 Bottom line?

People are capable (and in most cases willing) of giving so much more of themselves than we ever ask them to share. Talk with your colleagues about how to further strengthen the ideological clarity among everyone in in your organization, as well as opportunities to reduce unnecessary compliance in operational efforts.

This is an update of an earlier post. 

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