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Perspective | Process Management

How to balance control and trust in an age of uncertainty


“Trust is good but control is better” is a famous quote attributed to Vladimir Lenin. Many companies seem to live by it. The trouble is that in real life it is a double-edged sword. Relying on trust alone may leave your business vulnerable whereas too much control will stifle it. This post will revisit the influential management thinker Robert Simon to explore how you find a balance between trust and control in these times of regulatory pressure, misinformation and remote work.

The manager’s four levers of control

In the mid-nineties, the management thinker Robert Simons wrote “Control in an Age of Empowerment“. This influential article introduces four “control levers” that can help managers find the balance between trust and control. To summarize, the four levers are:

1. Belief systems

These include the core values of the company. They can set employees free to search for solutions that e.g. satisfy their customers. However, a co-located team with people from the same culture that speak the same language will be able to rely on this lever more than a dispersed team with many nationalities.

2. Boundary systems

These include e.g. policies that describe the company’s rules and actions and risks to be avoided. They are essentially the company’s brakes. This is where e.g. a Quality Management System comes in. 

3. Interactive control systems

They enable top-level managers to understand their competitive environment and respond to this in time. Such systems may include market share data, competitive surveillance, and customer satisfaction data.

4. Diagnostic control systems

They allow managers to set and measure progress towards goals. A budget is one example.

How to find the balance in your company

Simon’s point is that each lever of control has its own drawbacks and advantages. Therefore it should be pulled with different strengths depending on your company and its business environment. The four levers should complement each other. As diagnostic controls and boundary systems are implemented to constrain and interactive controls and belief systems help your organization to further develop and grow. 

Stable market? Use budgets and work instructions.

If you are a mature company in a mature market then you may prioritize budgets, business policies, and work instructions (boundary systems and diagnostic control systems). You can hire employees that know how to work by clearly set rules. Your environment is stable and it is not required to empower your employees to act on their own.

Changing market? Use strong core values, clear rules, and plenty of data from your environment

On the other hand, if you are in a market that is changing fast then different levers must be pulled. Here your budgets will quickly be outdated and your work instructions will be redundant. So either you invest a lot in updating and communicating them all the time, or you reduce them to a minimum. Hence you give people the tools to deploy their skills, experience, and initiative in the interest of your company.

In this case, nurturing strong core values are essential. E.g. the famous US shoe retailer Zappos became the market leader on the core value of excellent customer service. Its staff had hardly any boundaries in their pursuit of customer satisfaction. On the other hand, Simon puts it this way:

“if you go very fast then you need powerful brakes”

Boundary systems may be important to control your company’s exposure to risk when everyone is fired up and ready to act. Finally, interactive control systems are important so you can act in time when development in your market takes a new direction.

Start-up? Find the right mix so you can scale

If you’re a start-up then you may be able to control your company directly. Have a daily meeting and share examples of what is desirable behavior, mix in some insights from the market. Show your colleagues a little bit of what not to do and what not to spend time on. As you develop, this meeting can slowly be formalized into levers of control that can be applied when people are traveling or if you open new offices.

To stay with the driver’s analogy it’s (probably) a lot easier to learn how to drive a racing car if you first have learned to handle a normal car. Or perhaps you have done some laps in a go-cart or tried a simulation game. Pulling the levers of management is the same – start early so you don’t find yourself at the Grand Prix without any knowledge of how the car works…

How the Gluu platform could help you balance control and trust

The Gluu platform blends business processes, work instructions, measurable tasks and communications to help companies achieve a common way of working. Having a ‘single source of truth’ with full transparency through change automated change logging provides control without having to centralize and slow down a company’s development. This way managers get full control of any process while still being able to decentralize its ownership and show trust to the people that are responsible for changing this.

I hope this short intro can inspire you to see that the trade-off that Simon referred to no longer needs to be there. Even in these times where an ability to work remotely is more important than ever before.

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