Organizations don’t need heroes

In the HBR article IT in the Age of the Empowered Employee, the author explains the concept of a “new contract to empower employees to solve the problems of empowered customers”, by identifying innovators:

In our new book, Empowered, we call these covert innovators HEROes — highly empowered and resourceful operatives. HEROes are those employees who feel empowered to solve customer problems and act resourcefully by using whatever technology they need to use. HEROes comprise 20% of the U.S. information workforce, but your industry may have many more or many fewer highly empowered and resourceful operatives.

The picture they use to explain this organization framework is a pyramid.

I don’t doubt their findings that about 20% of information workers act resourcefully and take the initiative in dealing with customers. I do take issue with the acceptance of the status quo and even supporting it with something like the HEROes model. That’s just not good enough, in my opinion, and shouldn’t be acceptable for any business leader.

The pyramid needs to flipped and organizations should develop ways to encourage innovation amongst 80% or more of the workforce, not the minority already performing in covert ways. I’ve suggested this before, in workers, management and work support.

It is time to invert the organizational pyramid mental model and integrate learning, both self-directed and social, into all that we do. As the systems that we work in become more complex and even chaotic, we have to develop sharing-based accountability practices.

However, most of our HR and work practices are still premised on the assumption of stable systems. This is no longer the case. Some of the project-based work that I do uses learning-based accountability, where we are all responsible to help the rest of the team learn. For those who work on the Web, this becomes a natural way to do things. The same can be said for sharing-based accountability, especially amongst bloggers and others who share online. We have learned that the more you give, the more you get back in the form of feedback and more learning opportunities.

Inverting the organizational pyramid requires serious work from management by optimizing connections between people and enabling better communication. Innovation, in the form of emergent practices, come from the dynamic interface between workers and those outside the organization. It’s management’s job to facilitate the creation of new tools and processes to support the work being done. Focusing on a minority of workers will not create a system that can improve the entire organization.

2 Responses to “Organizations don’t need heroes”

  1. Tim Kastelle

    Very nice post Harold. I think that part of the problem here is that ALL of the pyramids that we use as mental models of organizations need to be inverted. Too many people still think of management as the group that tells people what to do, when in fact the primary job of management is to remove obstacles – i.e. provide support. It requires a fundamental re-think…


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