Who has authority?
If you’re considering your organisational structure, then thinking about who has authority is a great place to start.
When you’re operating in a traditional hierarchy with a vertical structure it’s titles that define authority. Power rests with those at the top who make decisions and pass this information down to those with authority. This type of hierarchy with authority concentrated at the top doesn’t take into account the situational knowledge of those further down the chain, causing friction, bottlenecks and a lack of trust.
But if you start to distribute authority and give decision-making rights to the people closest to the action you can get to better, quicker decisions. Giving away control and putting faith in the judgement of your team not only empowers them but keeps them engaged, allows them to iterate quickly and means your business is in a better position to adapt to changes.
Distributing authority doesn’t mean a free for all where people can make decisions on a whim and plough their own furrow, similarly, removing a top-down structure doesn’t have to mean moving to a consensus model where you need the agreement of your whole team to make decisions and get things done.
There are lots of different models for distributed authority and in reality you’ll need to assess your team size and strengths to find a level of autonomy that works for you. But if you’re going to start distributing authority, you’ll need to tackle three things: empowerment, trust, support.
If you want your team to take big decisions, you need to empower them to do it. The authority people have must be true and not taken away when times are tough or setbacks hit. At Asana they formally distribute responsibility across their teams through 'Areas of responsibility' or AoRs. These clearly defined remits, with directly responsible individuals, ensure there's a transparent distribution of authority and clarity that gives people the confidence to make decisions and big calls.
For your team to feel empowered they must feel trust. Similarly, if you're going to give people the authority to make big decisions you need to trust their ability and judgement. Getting to a place of trust can take time and work but it's vital. Try to foster a culture of constructive feedback and make it a two-way process - a positive and open dialogue builds trust and ensures your team aren't afraid to fail and learn from failures.
When you distribute authority, you need to make sure there are support structures in place. No matter how experienced you are in making decisions, when a big one comes straight at you it can be daunting - especially if your decision seems like a risky call. Make sure when the tough decisions hit people have a buddy, or panel of buddies, to bounce things off or share the load with and managers are equipped to coach their team through the decision making process.
Holocracy: the ultimate distribution of authority or step too far?
Holocracy is a structure that is a complete distribution of authority. No job titles, no managers, no hierarchy. Possibly the most high-profile adopter of this system is online shoe retailer Zappos. It's a radical departure, one that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh saw as a new kind of management structure predicated on decision-making authority being distributed throughout the organisation to bring hyper-productivity and resilience. It's also a system that teams can find disorientating, confusing and hard to adopt. While Holocracy is perhaps a step too far for most businesses reading there are lots to be learnt from their experience and approach.
Adapt to survive
As the world changes, so do the way organisations work. The past 18 months have shown that clarity of decision making in times of crisis is vital, and often at breakneck speed. When you distribute authority with a mutual understanding of expectations, responsibilities and boundaries you empower your team to make the right call, with the right support. As company structures continue to evolve it's definitely worth exploring how letting go of some authority could benefit you, your business and your team.
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