Sunday, October 28, 2007

Learning How to Lose Control

The words are those of Bertrand Piccard, the leader of the team that was the first to circle the earth in balloon, who speaks about being “much more confidently aware, and more creative, despite being completely lost for five days over the Atlantic.” How is it possible to gain confidence while losing control? How is it possible to beat the likes of Virgin’s Richard Branson, in highly-pitched competition, if you’re not in control?

After all, Jim Collins tells us, in Good to Great, that it is “disciplined people -> disciplined thought -> disciplined action” that leads to “great” rather than “good” performance; yet a world moving at warp-speed must, of necessity, require spontaneity in managerial response. Contradictory? You bet! But, is there is fatal disconnect here? Not if you learn how to lose control in an appropriate and effective fashion. .

Collins is right, discipline matters, but discipline does not have to mean “robotic”, and losing control does not have to mean “abdication of responsibility.” “Getting lost” does not have to mean “losing our way.” Jazz pianist great Herbie Hancock, once characterized Miles Davis’ leadership style as “turning his musicians [of which Hancock was one] into magicians,” who “weren’t afraid of the unknown, we relished the unknown; we loved getting lost.” And, it should be noted, in the midst of getting lost, this same team of very talented professionals created some of the most innovative and amazing music of their time.

Great performance in the face of the unknown will be an increasingly important attribute of successful managerial practice in the 21st century; and isn’t the concept of magicians perfect for what stretch and challenge are all about: getting more out of our talented professionals, while helping them fulfill their potential? So what does “loosing control” have to do with this?

Is it possible to lose control while still keeping it at the same time? It is, if you define what control you are willing to give up, and what control you cannot relinquish. If I am fortunate enough to be working with great talent, I want to give-up some control so that they can fully exercise their talent. At the same time, I am responsible for achieving the project’s objectives. Think of this as drawing a box around the project: the boundaries of the box determine who owns what. Inside the box are challenges for my talented team to tackle in any way they want. Outside the box is my realm of responsibility. Inside the box is where I choose to lose control; not outside, resulting in my retaining complete control over the objectives, while ceding absolute freedom to my team in how they achieve these objectives. Contradictory? Not any longer, but not easy either. Effectively losing control requires: 1. clarity of vision, so that everyone understands, explicitly and completely, what the vision of the project is; and 2. sufficient self-confidence on the part of the leader to let go of control within the box.

This comment was published in The Times of India [Mumbai edition] 2007

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