How Can Leaders Let Go Without Losing Control? Doctrine

Every organization wants to achieve both alignment and autonomy. But how do you get there? The solution comes from a surprising place: the battlefield.

In the military, generals must ensure alignment to the strategy, while soldiers need autonomy to respond to changing conditions. The military’s solution has two parts: Commander’s intent declares the purpose of an operation and the conditions for success, and doctrine determines how soldiers make decisions to fulfill that purpose.

But in business, doctrine is noticeably missing. Organizations each have their own mission, goals and strategies. They also have rules, policies and procedures. But few have comprehensive doctrine to empower decision-making across the organization.

Without doctrine, it’s impossible for managers to let go without losing control. Instead, leaders must rely on active oversight and supervision. The answer is to replace processes that control behavior with principles that empower decision-making.

Although rare, there are companies that have made the shift from process to principles-based management. For example, Wikipedia has its five pillars, Google has its nine principles of innovation.

To understand doctrine, it’s important to know the difference between values, goals and decision principles. Values are what’s important to you. Goals are what you want to see in the world. Principles are what help you make decisions. One difference between values and principles is their specificity. Principles can “nest” inside other principles. For example, Wikipedia has specific principles for authors that nest inside the more general five pillars.

Be aware that the shift to doctrine and principles-based management is more than a tactic. It’s a new way of thinking about management. Instead of making decisions for others, or delegating those decisions, it means creating principles that enable people to make decisions for themselves.

To get started, follow these steps:

Purpose: Re-examine your mission. Is it a shared purpose? Do you have a narrative that explains how that purpose will be fulfilled?

Principles: Start with your values and transform them into decision principles. Then find real-world decisions and work backward to come up with the most effective principles.

Catalysts: Find employees who can evolve the principles and help people apply them to daily decisions. Connect the catalysts to learn together.

By creating the missing layer of decision principles, leaders have an opportunity to let go without losing control, and to add structure without losing speed. It’s a way to transcend the trade-off between alignment and autonomy, and to create a culture based on principles over process.

Mark Bonchek is the founder and CEO of Shift Thinking. This article was originally published by Harvard Business Review in June 2016.

Copyright 2018 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate. 

Topics: Management

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