Giving Power to the Edge: The Challenge of Making It Real

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Jul 25, 2019
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Throughout this century, companies have struggled with how to distribute decision-making power to their employees. Whether these companies want more speed and agility or simply value organizational democracy, power has been difficult to share in American business.

The hierarchical, bureaucratic management philosophies of the 20th century remain stubbornly ingrained in our culture. As I’ve learned at Widen, where we implemented a decision-making framework called Power to the Edge, changing how employees make decisions is a cultural revolution. It takes more than new policies and processes.

That cultural revolution happens at several scales – the level of society, of the company, of teams, and of individuals. I’ll discuss decision-making power at these four scales to illustrate how Power to the Edge took form. I’ll also share the key elements of Power to the Edge that may help you develop your own decision-making framework and give greater autonomy to your employees.

The backdrop

Let’s start at the scale of U.S. society and culture. The capital-A Agile movement coalesced in the early 1990s, sparking new management philosophies that called for employees to exercise their independent expertise and judgement.

Agile resonated with technologists because expertise in computing was rare. Early programmers worked on projects that their executives hardly understood. Thus, executives were liable to slow or kill innovations by trying to manage coders like factory workers. Often, executives made decisions without understanding how these would derail the coders.

Technologists wanted freedom from mismanagement. Or as one writer of the Agile Manifesto wrote, “In order to succeed in the new economy, to move aggressively into the era of e-business, e-commerce, and the web, companies have to rid themselves of their Dilbert manifestations of make-work and arcane policies.”

The technology world wasn’t alone in rethinking management norms. The term “Power to the Edge” was first used in a U.S. Department of Defense publication. The authors argued that digital communications technology would radically change the way militaries operated. In a more networked environment, individuals would need more autonomy if they were to make decisions faster than their opponents.

“Power to the edge is a result of technological advances that will, in the coming decade, eliminate the constraint of bandwidth, free us from the need to know a lot in order to share a lot, unfetter us from the requirement to be synchronous in time and space, and remove the last remaining technical barriers to information sharing and collaboration.” — John Stenbit, foreword to Power to the Edge, 2003

In business, strict command chains were beginning to cost time, adaptability, speed-to-market, and employee satisfaction. In the military, it potentially cost lives.

Fear of autonomy

Agile, Power to the Edge, and organizational democracy gained momentum. By the late 2000s, companies like Google, Facebook, and Netflix had become well-known for giving their employees autonomy. Whether or not that autonomy was the reason these companies succeeded, the rest of the business world took note – and tried to copy their policies.

However, offering employees greater freedom without changing underlying cultures was problematic. In companies that offered unlimited vacation time and flex hours, for example, employees were afraid to use their freedom. If they really took a month off of work, wouldn’t they get fired? If they worked from noon to 9 pm or took siestas, would they be seen as slackers?

At Widen, autonomy was becoming part of our culture organically, but it was undefined. Employees who came from hierarchical organizations had cultural baggage. They weren’t sure how much decision-making power they could actually exercise. When our CEO, Matthew Gonnering, told people to “Act like you own the joint,” it was easy to doubt him. People weren’t sure how far to take their freedom.

As we opened a London office in 2018 and planned future expansions, we realized that our decision-making culture needed a defined framework that would make new employees feel comfortable. We didn’t want new employees to ask for approval and permission out of habit – or fear and uncertainty. We wanted Widen’s decision-making culture to become specific and transmittable.

Providing a framework

Widen’s Power to the Edge framework calls for 80% of decisions to be made by employees rather than our executives or owners. As I described above, people were unclear about which decisions they could actually make, so we studied models from GE, Novartis, and other companies to develop a system of our own.

In Power to the Edge, decisions are classified as A, B, or C:

  • Type A decisions are company-scale issues that change the structure of our brand or strategy and therefore require executives to take part.
  • B decisions involve team-scale issues that belong to managers. These decisions change the structure of teams, significantly impact multiple customers relationships, or transform our product.
  • Finally, C decision start at the individual scale and belong to all employees. They involve actions that are made in the best interest of customers and that reflect the best application of one’s talents.

To help people along, we break the decision process into steps:

  1. Awareness. Make sense of the situation so that you understand what the problems and opportunities are, how they will help Widen win, and how the outcome could affect our team, customers, and the organization.
  2. Collaboration. Find people who ought to be involved in the decision, anticipate conflicts, and decide how you will incorporate feedback from supporters and detractors.
  3. Ownership. Choose performance metrics, plan how to handle pushback, and ensure that the decision aligns with Widen’s strategy, vision, and values.
  4. Responsive. Plan when to make the decision, weigh the costs and benefits of timing, and decide what exactly the decision is and how to communicate it.

Our goal has been to collect 200 case studies of this framework being used within 200 days (we’re getting there). As an incentive, we offer a rad coffee mug to anyone who documents a Power to the Edge decision. The idea is to build up a library of case studies that new hires will one day study.

Make it work for you

I advise you to look at decision-making models from many companies and steal what you like. Widen is a mid-size marketing technology company, so what works for us might not work in an environment that has extreme compliance, risk, and safety issues.

The bigger point is that if you want to distribute decision-making in a company, you need to define, promote, and model the rules. We’re promoting Power to the Edge and rewarding people who document it because we know this program will lose steam otherwise. We have to practice Power to the Edge consciously until it is self-sustaining.

Cultural change is slow, bumpy, and difficult. It requires getting people to try on new behaviors until they become natural at the individual, team, and company level. Our society is already embracing greater autonomy and nudging this type of democratization along. If you make it safe and rewarding for employees to make their own decisions, they will step up.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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