Why Frontline Employees Should Make All Decisions:Lessons Police Can Learn From The Corporate Rebels

On Chet Richards recommendation I surfed over to the Corporate Rebels site and found this great piece, "Why Frontline Employees Should Make All Decisions" To those of you, who know me and, frequent my blog will understand why this article was particularly appealing to me and, why it should be of interest to policing is also, glaringly clear.

In this post the Corporate Rebels discus the status quo of command-and-control:

"Most organizations are organized around some sort of command-and-control approach. Employees first have to seek approval from the top before they can make important decisions. Things are getting done but lots of people are getting frustrated in the process. Even worse, these outdated processes and procedures are eventually hurting the organization’s bottom line.

Why? For one reason, employees on the frontline often have a better understanding of the products, processes, machines, customers and clients than people at the top. Simply, the frontline employees are often better informed about day to day operations.

It makes little sense that they do not make the more important decisions. They are usually the ones equipped to make better decisions, and faster. But our processes and procedures simply don’t allow them to do so."

Quite frankly, leaders in law enforcement must become much more comfortable with being in command and out of control. I am very passionate about the topic of adaptability and frontline decision-making have written on this topic in, The Adaptive Leadership Handbook: Innovative Ways to Teach and Develop Your People and in our latest book, Mission Command: THE WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN AND WHY An Anthology. We have discussed this topic of decentralized versus centralized control in numerous Blog posts and professional police journals. We have also developed the, Adaptive Leader Program: Developing Thinking Leaders Who Lead Thinking Officers and have been teaching it to police, military to include the United States Marine Corps and private organizations seeking to develop teamwork and improve decision making on the frontlines. The Corporate Rebels are bringing these ideas to fruition and doing it robustly in the business world:

"As opposed to the traditional command-and-control structures, many of the progressive organizations we’ve visited have a radically different approach. These organizations understand that in order to constantly adapt to a rapidly changing working environment, they have to truly distribute authority and decision making to frontline individuals and teams.

But how can this be done? And how do you effectively replace the centralized authority by a distributed decision-making process while not ending up in a terribly slow (and sometimes frustrating) consensus process? Let’s look at some of the things we learned from the world’s most progressive organizations."

This does not mean we have a free reign and anyone responding to a crisis does whatever he pleases, which is all too often what I hear from leaders who do not understand true decentralized control. There needs to be a clear mission, intent and focus. The need for command arises from--and varies with--the size complexity and differentiation of a law enforcement agency and the size and scope of the crisis. A one-man response requires no command, at least not in the sense that a 100-man, mutual-aid response does.

The exercise of command involves a great many things, not all of which can be clearly separated from each other. There is, in the first place, the gathering of information on friendly forces and their response, a problem that policing should not underestimate. We must also gather information on our adversary and on external factors such as weather and the environment or terrain. One man in command cannot have control over all these colliding factors. We must understand the importance of those on the frontline handling a crisis being able to decide. The Corporate Rebels give three guiding principles to help ensure this happens:

  1. Push authority down the org chart-Former US Navy commander David Marquet showed us how to distribute decision making throughout the organization without abolishing the organization’s functional hierarchy. Or as he describes it himself in his book ‘Turn the ship around’: “The first step in changing the genetic code of any organization or system is delegating control, or decision making authority, as much as is comfortable, and then adding a pinch more. This isn’t an empowerment program. It’s changing the way the organization controls decisions in an enduring, personal way.”
  2. Pre-approve decisions-Another powerful practice that enables distributed decision making in a functional hierarchy was shown to us by Henry Stewart. He talks about a practice called pre-approval. Pre-approval prevents employees from being micromanaged and from going through various layers of approval before they can make their final decisions. During a pre-approval process, the leader or manager approves someone’s decision before they even come up with it. Collectively they (for example) agree on the guidelines, the budget and on who needs to be consulted during the process. But, in all times the leader must pre-approve with the final implementation, whatever decision, solution or idea the employee will come up with. The process enables employees to really own their decisions. At the same time it frees leaders from the need to try to convince and persuade their people to go into a predefined direction. It forces the employees to feel fully invested in the decisions they make themselves. They will experience ownership and will do everything in their power to make their decision a success. Success rates will raise just as levels of ownership, entrepreneurship and pride.
  3. The advice process-Another powerful practice to truly distribute decision making authority throughout the organization is the so-called advice process. We saw the advice process being used in different kinds of organizations in a wide variety of forms (we have been writing about the process before). The concept is relatively simple, and once it has been rightly established it often proves to be incredible effective. It enables everybody in the organization to take up decision making authority. Which means that, in principle, anybody in the organization is able to make any decision. There is however one important condition. Before a person makes any decision, he or she is supposed to seek advice from the people who will be affected by the decision and from the people with expertise in the matter. All the collected advice and perspectives must be taken seriously, but the initial decision maker will decide what he or she believes is the best course of action. In this process, advice is just advice. No one can force the decision maker to make a certain decision.

The advice process can be simplified in five basic steps:

  1. Someone in the organization spots a problem, idea or opportunity and takes the initiative to become the decision-maker. (If the person doesn’t feel to be the right position for this decision he or she can ask someone better placed to taken over the role as decision maker)

  2. The decision-maker makes a proposal for the decision. (With or without initial input from the organization.)

  3. The decision-maker then seeks advice from the people being affected by the decision and by the people who have expertise in the matter.

  4. Taking the advice into account as best as possible, the decision maker makes his or her final decision.

  5. The decision maker takes action and informs all the people who have been given advice about the final decision.

The boundary conditions

It should be noted that distributed authority always requires a certain level of organizational transparency to make it work properly. Most often we witness cultures based on radical transparency, where all information is available in real time for everyone in the organization. This helps employees to make the right decisions at the right moment.

Joost Minnaar, Pim de Morree, Freek Ronner and Catelijne Bexkens, known as “The Corporate Rebels", are on a mission to make work more fun. They quit their frustrating, corporate jobs and set out to travel the globe to visit the world’s most inspiring organizations. While checking off their renowned Bucket List they share everything they learn. Featured in: NY Times, Forbes, HuffPost, Guardian, BBC. Listed as "Top 30 Emergent Management Thinkers" and nominated for Thinkers50 Breakthrough Idea Award.

To me it looks like they are on to something and continual strive to learn and share what works. Policing can learn from them as well!

Stay Oriented!