Companies that grant employees autonomy can find new ways to survive or thrive.
What do the U2 plane, which photographed the Russian missiles in Cuba, the Blackbird, the fastest plane in the world, and radar-immune stealth planes have in common? They were all developed within the experimental “Skunk Works” division of the defence firm Lockheed.
Such safe havens, or cultures of experimentation within companies, encourage greater innovation. In companies that have safe havens, unconventional ideas can gestate without the stifling influence of company politics.
A famous example is Google, which allows its engineers to use 20 percent of their contracted time to pursue any project that interests them. The successes come through approval from fellow engineers.
And while 80 percent of the projects have failed – Google Wave, for instance, which was voted one of the worst tech products of 2009 – a massive 50 percent of Google’s current products come from this project time, such as Gmail and Adsense.
The decentralization of authority implicit in granting employees autonomy encourages a culture of trust and a free exchange of ideas.
Companies such as Whole Foods Market and Timpson give workers an unusual amount of autonomy. Whole Foods teams, for example, give potential employees a four-week trial period before staff vote on whether to hire them or not. If at least two thirds vote yes, it doesn’t matter what the manager votes.
And in every Timpson store, old cash registers are used in place of electronic point-of-sale machines, so that head office has less control. In fact, staff are even given £500, which they can use in certain situations – like helping customers out if they can’t afford to pay, or gifting cash to shoppers who have been disappointed with a purchase.
Timpson has also instituted peer monitoring, where employees are responsible for each other’s problems, regardless of rank. An employee who makes a mistake, whether by accident or not, can be identified and the situation can be quickly rectified – a type of whistleblowing that’s encouraged by the company.