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Employee enablement - The secret of successful businesses

This is the story of two financial consultants*: Mike and Kate. Same job; different consulting firms.
One provides great services for the customers, the other doesn’t.

Why is that?

* Adapted from Buckingham, M. and Goodall, A. (2019). The power of hidden teams. Harvard Business Review

Kate has worked at a consulting firm as a financial consultant in the audit department for the past three years. In a recent interview, she described how thrilled she is to be in a role whose entire purpose is serving the customers to work better. In particular, she loves what she calls the cross-functional approach, in which the auditor, the controller, the process analyst, the financial consultant, the HR consultant and the business architect all come together to offer the best support for each customer.

Mike has been a financial consultant for about the same amount of time, but he works for a different department in a different consulting firm. He works the same long hours Kate does, but unlike her, he is not part of cross-functional units. He is merely one of 52 consultants, all of them assigned to different projects and customers from one month to the next and all of them overseen by two project planners and one department lead. He is struggling. He embarked on his consulting career with as much passion to help people as Kate did, but now he’s tired, burned out, and thinking about quitting.

(Kate and Mike are not real persons, they are a composite of several people we spoke with over the last years, we’ve been working as a consultant ourselves)

Both Kate and Mike face incredible daily pressures at work. The job is inherently stressful, the system under strain, the risk that errors may lead to lawsuits a constant worry. The need to learn new things over and over again is high.

For Mike the stress lands heavily. His feeling, as he gets in his car every morning to head to the customers, is that he’s going through the motions, surviving the experience at work, trying to keep it all at bay.

He’s just not engaged in his work.

Something different is happening for Kate. Something about her experience at work is lifting her up, not pulling her down. She is fully engaged — and her customers are satisfied.

Despite the many efforts that companies have made in recent years to increase their employee engagement, the figures remain depressing. According to a recent survey conducted by ADPRI in 19 different countries, only 16% of all employees are still fully engaged at work. This means that an overwhelming 84% are not engaged at work.

And yet there is a solution. Research from the same ADPRI but also from our experience shows that there is a positive link between employee engagement and making invisible work visible.

The answer appears to lie not only in changing the company culture or making personal feedback more frequent. The crucial factor lies in collaborating within cross-functional teams and getting a grip on the work that lies on the shelf.

But how can you do that?

Making all work visible

Companies successfully managed to map the functional teams through organizational charts, but fail to account for many actual cross-functional teams formed beyond the organizational structure.** **It is easy to visualize the functional departments, such as “audit”, “finance” or “HR”, but it’s rather challenging to map the teams formed beyond the org. structure, such as customer project teams and internal project teams.
When these teams consist of different profiles from different departments it seems to be rather challenging to make people find each other to do the job. Therefore, a lot of companies still use a central planning unit to manage that challenge, just like the consulting firm where Mike works.

But when companies manage to enable their employees to find each other on their own through creating full transparency, they are able to generate highly satisfying experiences for both employees and customers. Think about the story of Kate.

Increasing Human attention

By enabling employees to organize themselves around the projects and the work that has to be done, you increase the amount of Human attention dramatically:

  • The level of trust is considerably higher within these small autonomous cross-functional teams because the people in it are able to pay attention to each other personally. This is a big difference when you only have one supervisor for a team with dozens of people.
  • People are always eager to learn and develop their skills but they rather learn from each other than being sent to an external workshop or training which often is unrelated to the actual work.
  • People who are working in cross-functional teams feel more freedom and a higher level of control. This leads directly to meaningful and workable work.

Unlocking commitment

If you enable people to take matters into their own hands, there is also a much greater chance that they will care about what is really important. They will look for solutions for things that are not going well, they will be anxious to help realize the company's strategy and they will easily go along with changes because they will really understand why they are necessary.

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