Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Empowered or not – A litmus test of organisational culture

with 7 comments

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?

Possible Answers:
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:

  1. Decisions get made at the level at which work gets done.
  2. 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?

Written by K

July 23, 2008 at 10:38 pm

7 Responses

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  1. […] In an earlier post, I have written about the importance of empowering people to make decisions relating to their work.  Research indicates that autonomy results in better job satisfaction and, hence, increased […]


  2. […] focused one. This conclusion makes sense: project teams are more likely to avoid biases when empowered to make decisions,  free from management and organisational pressures. Furthermore, biases are also less likely to […]


  3. […] do people in your organisation do when they are annoyed by some aspect of their job? (Note: see this post for more on this […]


  4. […] Empower employees to make decisions that affect their work. This means allowing them the freedom to decide the best approach to solving problems (within limits specified by organisational and resource constraints). […]


  5. […] contract. So, in cases where one is dealing with high performers, a better strategy might be to  empower them to make decisions on how their work gets done or , where possible,  matching assignments to  professional interests and […]


  6. […] teams need to adapt and adopt agile practices. Another characteristic of an agile culture is that teams are empowered to make their own decisions. This can be a challenge for managers and teams attuned to working in corporate IT environments […]


  7. […] my post entitled Empowered or Not – a litmus test of organisational culture for […]


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