Empowered or not – A litmus test of organisational culture
In a recent lecture on leadership in software development, Mary Poppendieck relates the well-known parable of the three stone cutters. The story, in short, is as follows. Three stone cutters are asked what they’re doing by a passer-by. The first one answers, “I’m cutting stones”; the second, “I’m earning a living”; and the third, “I’m building a cathedral.” A variant of this tale is related in Ricardo Semler’s best-selling book, Maverick, in which he details how he turned his company, Semco, from a traditional, hierarchical organisation to one in which workers were empowered to make decisions that affected them. In effect, he turned an organisation of stone cutters into one of cathedral builders.
When asked, most senior managers claim that their organisations, like Semler’s, have more cathedral constructors than stone slicers. However, this is their subjective impression which, quite obviously, should be taken with a sprinkle of sodium chloride. What’s needed is an objective test of employee empowerment in organisations. In her lecture, Mary Poppendieck proposes such a test. Here it is:
What do people in your organisation do when they are annoyed by some aspect of their job?
a) They complain about it.
b) They ignore it.
c) They fix it.
(a) corresponds to the stone cutter, (b) the wage earner and (c) the cathedral builder. Poppendieck’s point is that when people are empowered to change aspects of their job that they feel need to be fixed, then it is clear the organisation has pushed decision making down to lowest possible level. This situation is desirable for two reasons:
- Decisions get made at the level at which work gets done.
- Everyone in the organisation is able to fulfil their full potential
So, now that you’ve taken the test, do people in your organisation (or team) cut stones, earn a living or build cathedrals?