While at business school (some might say a competitive environment – indeed some would say that might suit me…), I took part in a marketing strategy exercise. The basic concept was that each team was given a lot of background context and data, on the basis of which to make several marketing decisions on behalf of a business. The group outputs were fed into a computer programme which then fast-forwarded to a new start point as a result of the impact of the previous round’s decisions.
After 2 days of the simulation, my group finished mid-table with a score of say, 2,000. The winning team scored around 3,000. The professor then told us what the best ever winning score had been – over 10,000. Having had something of a blow to the ego already, this was like pouring salt into the wound of mediocrity. Several teams wanted to do it again (I’m not the only one…). Someone asked the professor a better question – what the secret was. Her answer was quite simple. The vast majority of teams undertook the task as a group exercise without a team leader. The best ever team had a very strong and capable individual on it, and one of the other team members had suggested that she should lead. That individual stepped up to the plate and directed the team’s activity, while the others let her lead. In a world pushing back against hierarchies, there are some interesting lessons here about the benefits of a benevolent autocrat. Contrast that with the other end of the spectrum…
Anarchy – it’s just not very effective
I am currently right at the start of a master’s degree in international relations, and there is a concept in that field called ‘anarchy’. This doesn’t describe protestors setting cars on fire or demonstrations to overthrow a government; it simply means the absence of centralised authority. Between nation states, there is no one authority which can enforce direction or compliance. The United Nations may appear to fill that role, however, neither membership or compliance is technically enforceable. In the final reckoning, nobody is in charge. Eventually, of course, such organisations become self-regulating and may be quite effective, it’s just that the process of getting there as a self-determining, self-organising group is generally extremely inefficient.
Looking back through the last couple of centuries, some scholars have reached the conclusion that the most effective time for cooperation and the generation of a ‘new order’ is after military victory when the ‘winners’ have the autonomy to simply impose their will and direction. While the US was just one of the victors in WWII, it was undoubtedly the one which had suffered the least economic and physical destruction (almost the opposite) and was by default in a position to play a lead role in directing the new world order. The American government didn’t have free rein – The Soviet Union and Great Britain didn’t ‘play ball’ on a number of issues, but its position of relative political, military and economic strength meant that it had a disproportionate influence on ‘making stuff happen’ (the IMF, the World Bank, the UN) – this was democracy, but ‘with a big stick’. Autocracy (relative) paved the way for democracy.
The EU provides an interesting case in point. One might make an argument that it has been very effective in many fields, probably more so than it often receives credit for. However only the most fanatical ‘Remainer’ would claim that the EU is an efficient organisation. The political compromises necessary to ‘keep the members happy’ generally result in some mind-blowing inefficiencies. Nobody has, or ever had, the mandate to ‘call them’ and prioritise effectiveness over politics.
The Spectrum of Effectiveness
Where does all that get me to? How much top-down direction is required is highly sensitive to the experience of teams and team members in working together, and also to the degree of common purpose and alignment of effort. We run an exercise in team effectiveness where teams perform the same mildly demanding task 3 times in quick succession. On the first iteration, close control (autocracy) from the leader is highly valuable – without it, carnage would ensue. By the third time, and with the leader taken out, the team are able to outscore the first round, by a factor of 3 or more. Improved clarity in the task and roles and better alignment of effort and resources mean that they require very little control or management.
More generally, benevolent autocrats can be highly effective. That was essentially what happened in the exceptional business school team above. However, there are two important caveats. That person needs to be ‘good’ and act for the greater good. By way of examples, I offer Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Steve Jobs at Apple and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum of Dubai. However, that system also contains severe risks – group think, lack of challenge, limited resilience and sustainability beyond the autocrat. In large, complicated organisations operating in a fast-moving dynamic world, autocracy can be severely limiting. The benefits of empowerment and agility start to become significant.
At Mission Excellence, we believe that organisational cultures can be heavily influenced by senior leaders. However, long-term high performance is bigger than any one star. It is about building a culture of high-performance and embedding it in the organisational DNA. That can happen by evolution, but it can be fast-tracked by design when the designer doesn’t just control the team but builds a system which outlives them and releases the potential in others – the essence of empowerment. Individuals prefer autonomy, organisations prefer alignment. We do not see them as mutually exclusive. The best organisations have both, but make no mistake that alignment comes before autonomy. Empowerment is not a free lunch.
Justin Hughes: Red Arrows, Mission Excellence and more
MD and Director of Consulting, Mission Excellence, helping clients to accelerate team and organisational effectiveness.
Author, The Business of Excellence.
Presenter on performance, leadership, decision-making and risk, including previously at the IoD Annual Convention.
Adviser to Humanutopia.
Founder of high-street retail and medical conference start-ups. Adviser to hedge fund. RAF fighter pilot and executive officer on the Red Arrows.
The Business of Excellence by Justin Hughes is published by Bloomsbury. Buy The Business of Excellence.