Striking the balance between alignment and autonomy is no simple task, it is something which requires significant and continual attention from both teams and their leaders. Both are important factors which can be achieved through common shared understanding of the business and its aims, ability to take risks, and using one’s initiative.
In our latest webinar on ‘Optimising Alignment and Autonomy’, our distinguished panel discussed the importance of mission command, organisational structures, and embracing the notion of risk. On Thursday 8th July 2021, we were joined by:
Rebecca Stephens (Chair), principal consultant at Skarbek Associates, writer, lecturer and executive coach.
Stephen Bungay, author of ‘The Art of Action’, management consultant and Director of the Ashridge Strategic Management Centre at Hult International Business School.
Roger Scarlett-Smith, executive vice president of the UK and US business for STADA.
Paul Heugh, founder and CEO of Skarbek Associates.
Here are some key takeaways from the day…
Development and Importance of Mission Command
The concept of mission command finds its roots in the battlefields of the 18th century. After the Prussian Army experienced a catastrophic defeat by the French, an analysis of the defeat was summed up as ‘we fought bravely enough, but not cleverly enough’. They were forced to rethink their organisational model. They recognised that there was no need for tighter control, but instead a need for common shared understanding. Rather than orders telling you what to do and how, they began implementing directives guiding what to achieve and why; allowing individuals to work out the ‘how’ themselves. Understanding was confirmed through the individual informing you of their ‘how’, creating an effective communication loop. This allowed for both high alignment and high autonomy – in turn producing an agile, coherent, and flexible workforce.
Mission command highlights the importance of the balance between alignment and autonomy. To generate optimum value from both your business and your people, you must empower individuals to think autonomously and encourage them to act on initiative.
Organisational Structure – What Works vs What Doesn’t
Creating an organisational structure with the perfect balance between alignment and autonomy is highly circumstantial. The advantage of having both alignment and autonomy working harmoniously together is that it creates the ability to temporarily pull back the autonomy when required. It comes back to the fundamental concept of the ability to take risk and seize initiative. By allowing individuals to use their initiative, you encourage productivity and autonomy. Autonomy allows for further growth and learning, shaping an individual who feel they are trusted and consequently adding value to the business.
Risk is an inherent and fundamental factor of business; a factor which should be recognised and celebrated as it provides organisations with endless growth opportunities. Management efforts are often focused on aligning people to avoid risk, whilst being wholly unaware that this in fact prevents and discourages people from using their initiative. Paradoxically, through allowing individuals the freedom to make their own decisions, you in fact mitigate risk. Good decisions made at lower levels may compensate for errors in judgment made at senior levels. Highly diligent, professional, and flexible people allow for calculated risks to be taken. However, it is important that risk is accompanied by some safeguards. This could be in the form of having core processes which act as a spine of the business, ensuring common understanding of the organisation and its aims.
Our panellists key takeaways:
- Adopt a process of briefing and back briefing – communicate to your workforce what to achieve and why, providing them with some boundary conditions, then allowing them to decipher the ‘how’. By ensuring they communicate the ‘how’ back to you, you are assured they have understood their brief, and a communication loop is created as opposed to a top-down communication line.
- Embracing risk – position yourself and your people as risk leaders, not risk managers. You must ensure you are providing certain guardrails to avoid catastrophic risk, whilst still offering maximum amount of autonomy. Encourage an environment which cultivates and welcomes risk, through open communication and ensuring and understanding that risk is a valid and essential part of business, as opposed to an ugliness that you must manage away.
- Deliberate practice – deliberately set out with the intention to achieve the balance between alignment and autonomy. Continue to work at it and put practices in place to cement it, whilst also continually asking for feedback. Set out clear guidelines of freedoms and constraints so that people know when they are free to operate, and where they need to be directed.
Rebecca Stephens (Chair), was the first British woman to climb Mt Everest and the Seven Summits. She is a writer, lecturer and executive coach, specialising in leadership, professional and team performance, influencing skills, and resilience. Her book titles include ‘The Seven Summits of Success‘, a business book on leadership, co-written with business writer Robert Heller.
Stephen Bungay, author of ‘The Art of Action’, worked for The Boston Consulting Group for a total of seventeen years. He then ran the commercial operations of a Lloyds-based insurer before subsequently joining the Strategic Management Centre in 2001. He teaches on executive programmes at several business schools and is a regular guest speaker at the Royal College of Defence Studies in London. As an author, Stephen has written books on military history and strategy execution. His current work is focused on the most effective ways of developing an agile strategy in an environment of high uncertainty.
Roger Scarlett-Smith, one of the most experienced and respected figures in the Healthcare Industry, joining STADA’s UK arm, Thornton & Ross (T&R) in October 2018. His remit includes the growth of the already successful UK business (comprising of Thornton and Ross, Natures Aid, and Britannia) plus the recent expansion of the business into North America, and identifying reliable and experienced partners for STADA both to the UK & U.S. markets. Roger has spent most of his career in Consumer Healthcare, being the driving force behind numerous well-known global brands such as Lucozade and Sensodyne. From starting with Procter and Gamble in 1981, he went on to spend more than 35 years in a variety of senior international roles at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), including heading both the North American and EMEA businesses with an extensive spell heading the Global Category team. In 2016 he went on to launch a busy consultancy practice, which directly led to his current role at STADA.
Paul Heugh, founder and CEO of Skarbek Associates. Paul was previously Vice President, Global Strategic Projects for GlaxoSmithKline, sitting on the leadership team of the Global Consumer Healthcare business. Paul is a recognised expert in both the execution of major programmes and in building the leadership and project management capability to deliver them. He has also developed world-class training programmes in project management and leadership, training several thousand people across the globe.
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