Steve Fenton

Leaving the key in the lock

KeyThere is a false dichotomy that is often presented in the face of allowing teams to self-organise in an organisation that is transitioning from their traditional command and control patterns.

The deadlock occurs when the organisation’s management wants to give autonomy to a team, but doesn’t yet trust that the team can perform to the current controlled standard. The outcome is usually a consensus of “the team can have the responsibility for doing it, but the management will retain the authority”. This is one case where compromise is the worst possible outcome. You cannot place authority and responsibility with different people if you want to get good results.

Ideally, the decisions should be placed as close to the knowledge as possible. Usually this means the team rather than the management. In order to make the right decisions in the long term, the team needs both the responsibility and the authority.

Faced with this choice in an environment of low trust, the management would rather retain both than relinquish both.

This is where “leaving the key in the lock” can be employed. Leaving the key in the lock is a mechanism for trust.

For example, on day one the manager has the keys to the stationary cupboard. If you need a pen or some paper you ask the manager and they decide if you are allowed it. Of course, you wouldn’t be asking if you didn’t need it so this is a little ridiculous – but at some point in the past someone abused trust and this was the justification for years of costly control.

Asking the manager to remove the lock and leave the door wide open is too big a leap at this stage (we are talking about low trust environments here). So what is a reasonable first step. How about this: the manager sticks the key in the lock in the morning and leaves it there until they go home. The door is still closed – but anyone can open the door because the key is there.

The manager has taken a step towards giving up control and the team are taking a step towards showing responsibility. Both parties can start to learn to trust each other.

The fact that the lock is still there is a comfort blanket to management and a reminder to the team that they are taking on responsibility for a part of the organisational budget.

After leaving the key in the lock for some time, both the management and the team will be ready to take the next step towards full divestment of responsibility and authority.

Written by Steve Fenton on