Updated: May 29, 2020
Few things can reduce the performance of a team more than a manager that just doesn't know how to get out of the way.
For the past seven years I have taught and cared for young adults with multiple severe developmental disabilities in a dedicated special education classroom. Our students face extreme disadvantages, and many are assigned a one-to-one aide to assist them throughout their academic and daily living routines. While this ensures that our class remains fully staffed with a great deal of skilled support, it also means that we have quite a few individual personalities and needs we need to consider to guarantee that our program operates with precision and efficiency.
In my experience, the greatest precondition to ensuring such precision and efficiency comes in the form of agility. Agility is a popular topic in leadership circles today, and discussions of its benefits and requisites regularly fill academic texts. But agility as it will be discussed here is a simplified concept—one that is frequently experienced in varying degrees by organizations, teams, families, and individuals across the world. It is the demonstration of eased speed and flexibility in response to immediate, changing demands.
The aides in my classroom demonstrate agility when they respond to the concerns of their students in the midst of a behavioral crisis. The fast-food cashier demonstrates agility when they switch between taking orders, preparing placemats, giving customers change, and communicating with their chefs. Agility can be an individual experience or it can be an experience shared amongst teams and whole organizations. It can improve response time, reduce disruption, facilitate change, and foster collaboration. It is a quality that can be brought upon in nearly any work environment, provided that leadership refrains from debilitating micromanagement and sets the right conditions for it to thrive.
Adoption of the Opportunity Strategy is one way leadership can achieve this.
The Opportunity Strategy is an approach to business management used by large organizations to generate agility through the reduction of regulatory drag and the promotion of individual autonomy (Bingham, Eisenhardt, and Fur, 2011). Although originally developed to facilitate big corporations tasked with responding to complex, volatile markets, the lessons given to us by the Opportunity Strategy model can be used to reduce micromanagement and facilitate agility in workplaces of any size.
The keys to effectively implementing the Opportunity Strategy are twofold:
1. Identify a focal strategic process by which to approach problems
2. Develop simple, non-negotiable rules capable of guiding this process
In my classroom, the focal strategic process is simple. We have a curriculum built upon applied behaviorism, which asks that we reinforce behavior we wish to see more often, and withhold reinforcement for behavior we wish to see less. Our non-negotiables include various safety factors, and certain issues that if not addressed (or addressed inappropriately) would be particularly detrimental to our students’ progress.
With just these two factors established, my team members are free to respond to the challenges of our classroom with their own individual expertise. The exact methods they use may vary from person to person, but with the Opportunity Strategy in place I am confident that the demands of our classroom will be tended to with care and dignity—without the stifling presence of constant supervision.
But special education is just one field.
Consider the busy customer support team of a burgeoning startup. Their focal strategic process might involve actively listening to customer concerns and pushing tickets along to higher level associates for complaints that do not fall into a specified list. Non-negotiables may include certain phrases for associates to use, or others to expressly avoid. With both a focal strategic process and list of non-negotiables enumerated, associates are free to conduct their business autonomously, provided they do so within this framework. Increases to agility, and thereafter productivity, are sure to follow.
Consider the marketing division of a competitive software development company. Their focal strategic process might involve reaching out to specifically underserved markets, while their non-negotiables might include details with regards to messaging and imagery. With these guidelines in place, the division is free to efficiently cover new markets and implement new campaigns without unnecessary restraint.
It is important to note that the Opportunity Strategy is not appropriate for all workplaces. Teams that require extreme amounts of precision may need to forego personal autonomy in favor of uniformity—consider the team of chemists mass producing large quantities of pharmaceuticals in a lab. Additionally, it should be noted that the examples given here are illustrative, and the decision to adopt the Opportunity Strategy, as well as the process by which a team develops their focal strategic process and list of non-negotiables, should be fundamentally personalized and based upon specific industry knowledge.
But the bigger lesson here is clear: teams of different sizes and functions can be faced with complex issues that require quick, agile decision-making. And implementation of the Opportunity Strategy is a powerful option that leaders have at their disposal to reduce micromanagement, break down barriers to agility, and quickly drive improvements to their team’s performance and flexibility.
Bingham, C. B., Eisenhardt, K. M., & Furr, N. R. (2011). Which strategy when? MIT Sloan Management Review, 53(1), 71-77.