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The efficient ineffectiveness of control

4 min read


“When we don’t give our people the space and freedom to take calculated risks, learn, apply, and iterate, we are risking our future.  While there is a risk to improvising and spontaneity, there is a greater, more insidious risk to control.” When I wrote a version of this in a recent Harvard Business Review post, it prompted a great deal of discussion.

As humans, and business people (e.g., managers), we naively think we can control things, so we try to control things. We put constraints, sometimes real, sometimes artificial, on our people, our projects, and our world. In my own personal experience, when I’ve tried to control things the risks were higher — of it not working, of failing, or alienating others.

When I’ve let go and trusted those around me, the subsequent freedom resulted in powerful, profound and even disruptive discoveries (and solutions). Didn’t that mean I’d made myself vulnerable? Yes! This may seem paradoxical to some, which is why most paradoxes hold deep truths.

In 2013, I hosted a radio show with John Hagel, Saul Kaplan and Mike Waite on the leadership paradox of vulnerability and trust. When you start ceding control and let yourself be vulnerable, your people feel freer to open up, to admit uncertainty (because if you do, they can), and to “rush to discover” instead of “rush to solve.”

Since they are not (as) afraid of being judged, they are more willing to experiment, listen, learn, and then come up with ideas. This results in better ideas, and eventually solutions. While this may seem counter-intuitive, our business world is structured around knowing the right answers instead of knowing the right questions. To learn the right questions we need to listen, observe, discover. The way we get to the right answers (if there are any totally “right” answers) is to spend the time asking the right questions.

Learning to ask questions assumes you’ve ceded control because it’s a flagrant (and freeing) admission that you don’t know. This requires time — pause — as in not doing. Think of music. If there weren’t any pauses in a great jazz piece, we’d be out of breath! We’d be exhausted! The pause lets us catch our breath, process, reflect, think a bit differently and see what’s possible, what’s emergent. When we control, we are focused on the outcome. When we free ourselves to pause and to question, we are focused on discovery. When we control, we are usually presupposing — maybe even imposing — a solution that may not work because we didn’t pause long enough to listen, learn and discover what our customers really need or want, from their view of the world.

In today’s world, the sustainable advantage goes to those who can let go, pause and experiment, learn, apply, iterate to discover the real needs of those whom they hope to help. The pause allows reflection, questioning, processing. The 20th century viewed this as a waste of time. The 21st century demands it. The 20th century deemed pauses as extremely inefficient. The 21st century deems pauses as requisites for effectiveness. The delusion is that 20, 30, 50 years ago we were great at being efficiently ineffective. The delusion lasted because of the decadeslong lag between those actions and the unintended consequences we face today.

So, this week, or next week, but soon, let go. And let your people go. Free yourselves up to rush to discover. I think you’ll be amazed and what and how you end up solving.

Deb Mills-Scofield has her own consultancy helping organizations create and implement highly actionable, adaptable, measurable, and profitable innovation-based strategic plans. Mills-Scofield also is a partner at Glengary LLC, an early-stage Venture Capital firm in Cleveland. She has 20-plus years of experience in strategic planning, execution and innovation with manufacturing, service and high-technology companies from large global companies to early-stage. She has also been involved in several carve-outs and startups, including her own. Find her on Twitter or on her website.