Empowered, Whether You Like It or Not

Today a decision had to be made.

We have three big new projects, and we have two locations in which to execute these projects. Obviously, our teams needed to know in which location we would be doing which project. And several people turned to me for a decision. I have no idea why. I wasn't wearing anything remarkable. But clearly they were seeking either my influence or my control:

2,600 years ago Lao Tzu wrote this about influence and control in his work Tao Teh Ching:

Intelligent control appears as uncontrol or freedom.
And for that reason it is genuinely intelligent control.
Unintelligent control appears as external domination.
And for that reason it is really unintelligent control.
Intelligent control exerts influence without appearing to do so.
Unintelligent control tries to influence by making a show of force.

Unfortunately, in my position on my throne of red plush, gold and diamonds, I had no useful information about these projects. So I slid off my throne and found four people to give me information that I could use to compare the projects. It is the typical problem of any complex organization: information flows everywhere, except to the top.

This is what Kevin Kelly wrote about that problem in his book Out of Control:

When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network, everything happens at once. When everything happens at once, wide and fast moving problems simply route around any central authority. Therefore overall governance must arise from the most humble interdependent acts done locally in parallel, and not from a central command.

As a manager I have two goals: The first one is: as many projects as possible must be done in location X (for financial reasons). The second one is: the risks for us and our customers should be minimalized. Actually no, I have three goals. The third one is: I want people not to bother me with questions that I have no answer to.

Now, my directives should have been sufficient for our people to make a decision themselves. But either I had not communicated my goals clearly, or they preferred to let me think for them.

I should have refused.

Intelligent control means exerting influence without appearing to do so. And governance should arise from our people's own interactions, not from my authority. So… if I had done my job well, I would have said "These are my goals. Figure it out." Instead, I stupidly reviewed the information I got about technologies, dependencies, and available resources, and knowledge. I then thought of an (easy) optimal solution, presented it to those involved as a suggestion, and asked everyone if they agreed. And of course, they agreed.

What a terrible waste of my time. It cost me at least six games of Minesweeper (expert level).

This is what Roger Lewin wrote about it in Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos:

Complexity science implies that CEOs and managers must give up control -or rather, the illusion of control- when they are trying to lead their organization to some goal. But they do need to create the environment in which creativity can emerge. The message of complexity science is not simply to stand back and wait for the right solutions to emerge. Too little control is just as misguided a business strategy as too much. Some structure is necessary. The degree and nature of control that CEOs establish in their companies strongly influences what emerges, in terms of culture, creativity, and adaptability.


Paradoxically, in order to better steer an organization, a manager has to give up the illusion of control. Empowerment (delegation of control) is often seen as a tool to motivate people. But that is incorrect. The reason to empower people is not to improve motivation, but to improve manageability. The information in the network is much better than the information available in the fat and expensive node that likes to think of itself as the "control center".

People must be empowered to make their own decisions, with the information they already have, whether they like it or not.

Fortunately, I didn't completely fail as an intelligent manager. After sending them my suggestion for the three projects, one project manager asked me which people to assign to the project in location Y. I told him that I didn't know, and that I was sure he could figure that out by himself. I'm not sure if he liked that answer, and frankly I don't care (much).

I'm not empowering people to please them. I'm empowering them to make better decisions than me.

(pictures by Thunderchild tm and renatotarga)

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