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Escaping the Corporate Bottleneck

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By Jack Cumming

Did you ever have an insight or brilliant idea only to receive a less than enthusiastic response from the boss? I am not talking about one of those hairbrained ones, but a really legitimate good one. If so, not only are you not alone in your experience, but your experience is more the norm than the exception.

The Employee Perspective

Here is why ideas have such a hard time percolating up in a traditionally hierarchical corporate environment. Assume your boss likes your idea and forwards it up the chain of command. If someone higher up doesn’t like the idea, or if the idea fails when implemented, your boss will get the blame for supporting it. Moreover, if it does work out, and you are recognized as the author, then you get the credit . . . not your boss. Your boss may even fear being replaced by you with your creative spark.

Making the Boss Look Good

When your idea gets turned down, or if your boss promised to get back to you, but doesn’t -- then you have difficult choices to make. One approach is to go over your boss’s head, but that’s never a good idea. The job of an employee is to help the boss look good. If you go over the boss’s head to a higher level, your working relationship with the boss is unlikely to ever again be functional.

Another choice is to look for a new position in a different enterprise where bottom-up ideas may be more welcome. That can, of course, be difficult. Good jobs don’t come along every day, and a change may require dislocating your family. Still, if you can find one of the more modern talent-driven flattened organizations, you may get lucky. These "Empowerment Organizations" are already making a difference.

The path chosen by most people is to adapt and learn to accept. Such people no longer bring their best selves to work. They may find their satisfactions in hobbies, church, family, or elsewhere. They are willing to spend 20 or 30 years in reluctant bondage trying to think the best of those to whom they are subordinated. This is, I believe, a big reason why employee engagement scores are so low in most companies.

A very few simply choose to leave without a job. They take the risk of flying without a parachute and veer off as freelance workers or as creative advisors. Some may even succeed as entrepreneurs bringing their creative ideas forward to disrupt stodgier enterprises like the one they left.

The Employer Perspective

If you have scaled the hierarchy and find yourself near the top, the challenge begins to look different. You may be one of those who adapted. You decided to be happy with your lot and simply accepted the primacy of others as you climbed toward the top, helping your superiors to succeed even when they lacked your ability.

The view, though, is different from the top. Now you have the “buck-stops-here” responsibility for the success or failure of the organization. It’s up to you whether the organization changes with the times or simply withers into irrelevance and decline. That can be a daunting transition. Not everyone succeeds in taking that step. We all know of corporations in crisis for which the CEO makes excuses instead of stepping up and resolving the crisis. Boeing is only the most recent, highly visible example.

Still, the best CEOs take a firm hold on the corporate tiller and steer the organization forward into a vision of the emerging future. CEOs set the pace to determine whether the enterprise is a leader or merely an also-ran follower. They also determine whether the business remains siloed and hierarchical or if it transitions into an Empowerment Organization.

Changing Organizational Concepts

It’s popular now to view technology and social media as great disrupters. And they are. But alongside the challenges of technology are emerging new concepts of corporate organization that break down internal silos of functional isolation and that free the creatively adaptive skills of the organization. Old concepts to limit “span of control,” which leads to a proliferation of command levels, are being supplanted by new concepts of distributed responsibility and accountability.

Not many years ago, Forbes’s Jacob Morgan wrote of the evolution of organizational power and fulfillment structures. He identified five (the titles link to his writing):

The last of these reflects the faddish fascination with popular books that propose new success systems. Brian Robertson’s Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World was published at the same time as the Forbes article.

Of the traditional hierarchical organization, described earlier in this article, the Forbes author wrote, “This type of a model makes sense for linear work where no brain power is required and where the people who work there are treated like expendable cogs.” There’s no question that some jobs in senior living require a measure of routine, even brawn, though the slow emergence of exoskeletons may reduce that. Moreover, senior living requires reliable 24/7/365 coverage of responsibilities.

Some top executives may conclude that these physical attributes of the job lend themselves to traditional hierarchy. Moreover, there are psychic rewards associated with feeling that you’ve climbed to a command position. There’s no doubt that the top of a hierarchy comes with rich rewards of money and power. That can be heady stuff. Still, if the objective is to position the enterprise for the long run, that requires a concerted, continuous focus to understand, and respond to changing consumer values and expectations. For that, the Empowerment Organization format may be better suited.

Responsibility and Accountability

The key to Empowerment Organization concepts is responsibility. Responsibility is inextricably connected with accountability. The person who makes choices and decisions must be held accountable for that responsibility. Many times that will mean that people who fall short are shifted into positions for which they are better suited, or in the extreme, are counseled to leave the enterprise.

Hierarchical organization lends itself to responsibility deflection; it’s easier to blame others than to accept responsibility. Some bosses may even consider it a sign of weakness to admit failure and to accept the responsibility. That can result in organizational politics which supplants deliberation on what’s best for the enterprise and those it exists to serve.

With senior housing, there are critical services that require continuous coverage (staffing in a skilled nursing facility comes quickly to mind). The new flexibility can mean adaptable shifts of varying lengths. Staff who benefit from that flexibility have to accept the responsibility (and accountability) to ensure that a particular time slot is covered either by themselves or by a substitute. That can involve market-based compensation akin to the way in which ride-sharing drivers are incentivized to cover unpopular work hours. This acceptance of individual responsibility is central to evolving concepts of Empowerment Organization.

Thought-Workers vs. Clock-Workers

For thought workers, responsibility can mean that a person who heads one project may be accountable to a different lead worker for another project, much as a freelance consultant juggles disparate clients. It’s easier to see how the new, flexible organizational concepts work for thought-workers than it is for those who have to work by the clock.

Both of these forms of heightened worker responsibility, coupled with increased worker flexibility, involve organizational flattening. With a flatter organization, there are fewer gradations of compensation and power; everyone is responsible, not to the personality of the boss, but to the common achievement of the shared objective.  

The positive is that decentralized decision-making allows the germination of good ideas; if the originator of the idea can persuade the consensus of team workers, then the idea can get a trial. That’s hugely positive in a rapidly changing economic environment. Toyota, for one, has long practiced this kind of improvement calling it by the Japanese word “kaizen.” Responsibility resides with the team, and the team’s compensation and success depend on the group’s cooperative effectiveness.

And, yes, there’s a generational aspect to the implementation of the Empowerment Organization. People who have already climbed part, or all, of the way up the corporate ladder may feel that they will lose something valuable. Moreover, there are all those bright, young Millennials eager to make a difference but less comfortable with the traditional corporate workplace. They’ve come of age in the Smartphone era. They may have to be taught responsibility and accountability but there’s no denying their affection for the future. They expect the Empowerment Organization.

Transition Challenges

Most businesses already know the value of these new Empowerment Organization structures. We see that in the widespread use of “team” to describe a work unit. Too often, though, “my team” means a “group I boss” more than “individuals I coach.” The challenge is how to flatten a hierarchical organization to make it more effective.

No CEO likes to bruise egos. A change, say, in which Regional Vice Presidents, and other extraneous layers, lose the pretense of their hierarchical authority is challenging for genial CEOs to implement. The alternative, though, may be a takeover by a new Empowerment Organization. If Empowerment Organizations begin to thrive, hidebound hierarchialists will have no choice but to change.

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