Principle #5: Enabling – Why Innovation Can’t Be Controlled

Author: Markus Peschl & Oliver Lukitsch

Before we get into the topic, we want to make you aware that the current blog post belongs to a series in which we introduce the guiding principles of theLivingCore. These principles guide our work with our clients, and we apply them to ourselves too. If you like what you read, don’t miss out on our other posts. The principle we look at today is the concept of “enabling.” It is a fundamental idea that lies at the heart of our approach to innovation and change – but also how we think of spaces we refer to as “Enabling Spaces.” And there is also an essential lesson to be learned about how we think of agile leadership. Let’s get to it.

Enabling Innovation

Any innovation leader would be happy if she could plan, command and control innovation in a mechanistic or predictable manner. Yet, it is misguided even to entertain this wish. We have argued on several occasions that one cannot control, predict, or command innovation.

The reason why it does not work is that innovation demands novelty. Yet, it lies in the nature of novelty that it is something that cannot be predicted and forced into being. Something truly novel cannot be known in advance. As we cannot have known the novel entity before its emergence, there is also no way we could have predicted it. To put it differently, we are good at predicting things from our past experiences which recur, more or less, as they did in the past. In comparison, phenomena that are absent or different from our past (experience) are unpredictable.

Admittedly, this all sounds very defeatist. But can innovation just happen by chance? Is it really something we cannot control? Can’t we create conditions that make its emergence more likely?

We claim that, instead of mechanistically planning or managing innovation, we can enable innovation by creating the appropriate environment to facilitate its emergence. The challenge is to design an enabling environment that supports the processes of creating novel knowledge. We refer to these environments as “Enabling Spaces” (Peschl & Fundneider, 2012).

We wrote a blog post about what this means for innovation and knowledge processes at length in this blog post. To better understand “enabling” we propose to look at the topic of leadership.

Leadership

The concept of “enabling” is changing our understanding of leadership in profound ways. This is especially relevant for leadership in (supposedly) agile or self-organized working environments. To succeed in such working environments and make them truly agile, one has to think differently about leadership, as we will show you in our blog post. Let’s go into more detail here.

Enabling versus Commanding

Today’s organizations often design their workplaces to be “agile” and enable self-organized work. One of the core ideas of agile work is that leaders let their employees take responsibility. They allow teams to take matters into their own hands, make decisions, and even set their own goals (in accordance with their organization’s strategy).

Doing so has major implications and advantages for an organization. It makes its processes more flexible and allows it to react positively to market changes and societal shifts. It also allows employees to take ownership of their projects and strengthen their sense of agency and responsibility. Moreover, it frees up management resources from the operational control of teams to strategic topics and higher-level planning.

Agile organizational design can also exhibit downsides. They are less predictable, and some processes might take longer in such organizations and teams. Decision-making, for instance, might take longer because lengthy discussions might precede the final call. And managers might regret the absence of clear, controllable structures, wondering what their job is in all this. After all, it is a highly entrenched concept that leaders are commanders.

Command and control

Agile leadership and organizational design starkly contrast with “command and control” leadership. “Command and control” means that leaders make plans and decisions and forward them to their subordinates. In doing so, their employees receive a clear-cut outline and rules of what they ought to do. If things go awry, the leader must take full responsibility.

This style of leadership can be highly effective – and remarkably predictable. Suppose teams are not allowed to organize themselves and find their own solutions to problems that arise. Their task is to implement commands. In that case, an organization’s leadership can (at least in principle) fully predict the results of its operations.

Another critical feature of command-and-control management is how goals and challenges are handled. They are treated as puzzles or problems that can be solved in an almost algorithmic way. The according paradigm is called “problem-solving,” which means that there is a clear goal set from the beginning and that the organization must find the best way to achieve the given goal. Think of management as a chess game. There is a predefined problem space and clear rules, and while there might be many ways of winning a game of chess, there is an optimal strategy to pursue.

As we said at the beginning of this section, there exist good reasons for replacing “command and control” leadership and organizational structure with an agile structure. Classic leadership strategies render your organization and teams less flexible, less autonomous, and therefore more vulnerable to an uncertain, fast-changing environment.

It also comes at the expense of your employees’ sense of engagement. They will be less likely to “own” their projects or feel like they are making a meaningful contribution. After all, employees are just “following orders and externally given rules.” They are not the ones in control or responsible.

The enabling attitude in leadership

Eliminating command and control management will not automatically lead to an agile organization. More likely, your teams will be looking for leadership and clear direction, and leadership or management will miss their role as leaders.

Self-organization and agile work is not happening in a void of leadership. Rather, such processes need to be enabled. In short, to enable your teams to work at their best is to provide them with the right frame and environment to help them unfold their potential.

This is easier said than done. To act as an “enabling” leader, one requires a set of skills that is radically different from what was required for command and control management.

For an organization, its leaders, and its employees to assume an enabling attitude involves a seismic shift in how one goes about one’s everyday life business.

Command and control attitudeEnabling attitude 
Planned, rule-oriented, algorithmic Enabling, facilitation 
Following rules & „recipes“, execution of routines  Providing a supporting environment & enabling constraints 
Trying to keep things under control Letting things go, follow the flow 
Problem solving & „puzzle solving“ Problem setting & paradigm setting 
Staying within the predetermined problem space Questioning assumptions and methods, open-ended 
Analytical, „science like“ Design (-thinking) based & „artistic“ 
Starting with already existing solutions, concerned with details Starting with a blank sheet, taking the large perspective 

Fond Soziales Wien

But how does it look when an organization fosters an enabling attitude? We want to provide an illustration of an organization we accompanied in a process in which they transformed their leadership, making it more nimble and agile. In short, we helped them to develop an enabling attitude.

The “Fond Soziales Wien” (FSW) is a fund of the City of Vienna, and while organized in the private sector, it serves the fulfillment of non-profit purposes. The fund’s mission is to plan, arrange and promote social services for people with care and support needs, disabilities, debt problems, and mobility needs, as well as for people without shelter and housing in Vienna.

While the FSW is considered a Viennese success story and as being highly successful in fulfilling its mission, it is also aware of the changes in the world of work. The job market becomes more difficult, thus making it critical for companies to have attractive offers for their future employees. Moreover, an increasingly unstable and unpredictable world requires an enabling attitude in leadership and management.

The challenge

A notable feature of the FSW is that it is a large organization with more than 2.000 employees. To keep an organization of this size afloat, command-and-control leadership is a convenient way of keeping things in check and on track. The leadership structure and culture were organized top-down, while cooperation and communication between various departments were considered secondary.

However, considering job candidates being very picky, agile, and self-organized work becoming a necessity in our complex world, the FSW set the goal to think about its leadership differently.

Our approach

Being aware of the challenges of FSW, we set out to transform its leadership culture across the board and on several levels of management. This is a huge task for an organization of that size, consisting of different, highly diverse departments and subsidiaries. This is what we did:

  • We formed a group of leaders representing the entire organization by carefully sampling several departments and subsidiaries.
  • In a series of workshops and by conducting generative in-depth interviews, we elaborated the requirements and a vision of the future leadership in FSW, continually involving the organization’s board and leaders from several levels of management.
  • Together with the project team, we carefully crafted seven future leadership principles for the entire FSW. These principles involved various topics, from error culture to cross-department collaboration and creative self-determination within teams.
  • We disseminated the principles in a series of workshops with the entire FSW leadership to create a mutual understanding of these leadership principles across the whole organization.
  • We tasked the entire leadership with exploring the principles and their potentials in their everyday-life work
  • We further facilitated the development of leadership prototype practices in onboarding, knowledge management, and democratic leadership, among others.

Most importantly, the new leadership principles were not simply imposed onto the FSW. Instead, we enabled the FSW to develop its principles “from within.” Creating the principles was already a step towards letting go of “command-and-control”-leadership, allowing the middle management to develop guiding leadership principles. That way, the organization was able to make these principles their own swiftly.

Moreover, the principles are agile themselves; they enable self-organization and autonomy among employees and invite the organization to revisit them regularly and stay nimble over time.

Have we awakened your interest in the idea of “enabling”? Are you perhaps facing similar challenges as the “Fond Soziales Wien”? We would be delighted if you got in touch with us.

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Images by Matthew Henry and Christina Wocin @ unplash.com