2000 years ago the Chinese were trading silk as far away (from them) as the east coast of Africa and what is now Indonesia.

They loaded up their mules and camels and headed out along the Silk Road. They skirted the Taklimakan Dessert, (which, incidentally, translates into ‘go in and you won’t come out’); braved the passes and bandits of the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush and arrived at the great trading Bazaars of India.  From there, either themselves or through trusted partners, they travelled east and west to find new markets.  They built relationships that allowed credit to be extended in what could be seen as a prototype of today’s global financial system.

And, as is the way of things, ideas like Buddhism and a wealth of new products travelled back with them along the same road.

And they did all of it – trading journeys lasting years – without a mobile phone or video conference in sight.

Not us.  Right now at a time when, in the service of productivity and profitability, organisations need to increase things like agility, responsiveness, engagement, innovation and so on, many are doing the opposite. We are increasingly overwhelmed with information, irrelevance and ‘interference’:  too many emails, too many meetings and not enough autonomy.

Let’s start with information.  If I ever discover a lamp with a Genie in it, one of my wishes will be that you can’t use ‘reply all’ without giving up one of your kidneys.  We’ve definitely gone down the ‘more is better’ path.  Don’t get me wrong – I love technology.  I’m in awe of the fact that I can walk off a plane and be instantly connected.  I’m a fan of email, social media, the internet and every piece of its insanely massive potential.  But we are using the tools indiscriminately and we need to get better at that.  A ubiquitous comment in my work is how many emails people will have to go back to after having spent any time away from the office (often in the 00’s, sometimes in the 000’s).  And I’m not talking about censorship.  I’m talking about choice.

What about irrelevance?  How many times have you heard the word ‘busy’ today?  Not ‘efficient’ or ‘productive’ or ‘valuable’:  ‘busy’.  It’s not a great word ‘busy’, tending as it does to denote rushing from meeting to meeting.  How many meetings are you in that you don’t need to be in?  Just because someone thought ‘oh, maybe it’d be useful for you to be there, just in case’.  How many days have you spent in meetings and started ‘work’ at the end of the day?  Probably with a hundred unanswered emails.

Finally, ‘interference’.  And I’ve put it into speech marks ‘cos it’s not really fair on the interferers.  They are actually (mostly) trying to do the right thing for the business and help you.  Only it isn’t and doesn’t.  We’ve all got stories of leaders at the top of (often) large firms reacting to some challenge or other (often financial) by grabbing responsibility for trivial decisions.  One example (and I’ve got loads) is the leader of a regional (APAC) firm with revenue in the $Bns having to approve every travel expense – the overwhelming majority of which were no more than a couple of hundred dollars.  This lead to senior leaders being clogged down with 100s of decisions about absurdly small things and the inability to focus energy on what was important.  Not only did this not solve the problem it was trying to fix (profitability) but it created another (frog) problem of stagnation, frustration and disengagement of (particularly) the sales team who now couldn’t do their jobs – one of which was to solve the profitability problem!

In fact over the last 20 years or so, decision-making has seemed increasingly to have moved to the tops of organisations.  There are many reasons for this: flatter structures, leaner operating models, improvements in technology and so on. However, there is also plenty of research about how damaging this is for profitability, customer service, competitiveness, innovation, engagement, agility.  In fact any aspect of organisational performance that is needed for success in the current dynamic, rapidly evolving climate is impaired by overwhelming leaders at all levels with too much information, unnecessary meetings and not enough autonomy.

So, we need to reverse the trend.

Let’s go back to our silk traders for a moment – how did they manage?  Well, courage and hardiness aside, they had clear goals (sell silk), clear measures (make a profit) and a great leadership culture (you’ve got everything you need, off you go and we’ll see you when you get back).

That’s certainly an oversimplification, and we’ve got a more complex environment.  But the solution isn’t that complicated:  we have to shove decision making as far down the organisation as it can go, and equip people to handle this new autonomy.  There’s even a label for this:  Distributed Leadership, leadership at all levels.  Leadership is (and has always been) about getting the right things done, often through the work of others (directly or indirectly). And this idea of equipping people to lead throughout an organisation has never been more important than now, in our matrixed, connected, rapidly changing world.

Distributed Leadership enables leaders to focus on what’s most important for them at their level:  the biggest opportunities and the biggest challenges.  They delegate or negotiate the rest, confident that the people around them are aligned to the same higher intent and able to handle the load.

Author: Charlie O'Connor