Action at the edge: giving people power over their input

Giving people at all levels of the organization the power to do something with their own information? That’s acting at the edge.

Action at the edge means that employees and people leaders can make a difference to how they work and the environment they work in.

Instead of waiting for senior management or HR to step in and take control, the authority to get stuff done extends out to all levels of the organization. People want to change the way they do their work? Schedules have to shuffle? A team wants more training? These things can be handled by the people involved, their teams and their direct leaders; scheduling decisions shouldn’t have to involve anyone at the exec level. However in bureaucratic and hierarchical organizations, involving the exec is how things happen. How things have always happened. Feedback goes up, action comes down - or action doesn’t happen at all.

The problem with feedback

Traditionally, employee feedback was HR’s domain. HR was in charge of distributing surveys, collating responses, presenting reports to senior management and overseeing any activity that resulted. It was HR that fed people leaders the information that concerned their departments, and HR that monitored any followup. This put the responsibility for actioning employee feedback firmly at the center of the organization.

Which is less than ideal.

Surveys that need to be routed through HR to the top of the organization and filtered back down again tend to have a significant lag between input and output. Something said in the yearly engagement survey might filter back to employees months later; if at all. The center of the organization is a busy place, and an issue that feels urgent to an employee in the warehouse may not even make it into the PowerPoint.

Action at the edge

Where action is allowed to happen at the edge of the organization, this is all much simpler. Instead of waiting for an official survey, teams and their leaders are free to bring up and resolve issues when they arise. Nobody at the center (or the top) of the organization needs to get involved.

This responsiveness encourages people to speak up about the things that are happening at work, whether they’re positive or leave room for improvement. People will volunteer information because they know something will happen, and that they’ll play an active role in making something happen. If feedback is aggregated - say, through an annual anonymous survey - then those opportunities for micro-actions are lost and the overriding perception of formal employee feedback continues to be that "nothing ever happens".

Enabling action throughout the organization

A high level of openness and delegated responsibility is characteristic of organizations that trust their people. But for organizations that have only ever known the top-down multi-level-signoff style of get-it-done, the idea can be a bit daunting. How do we know people won’t make sub-par decisions? How can we be sure we don’t get a budget blow out? How can I know everything’s going to plan if I don’t have oversight of everything that happens?

Make your expectations clear, and keep communication open.

When people know what’s expected of them, they have guidelines for their actions. They won’t blow the department budget on frivolities. They’ll make sure the roster doesn’t have any holes in it. They’ll add equipment to the company register. If they have to escalate something instead of acting themselves, they’ll do it - and they’ll make sure everyone concerned knows what’s going on.

People who know how their work contributes to customer outcomes and organizational success will want to be a part of that success, so they’ll make good decisions accordingly. And if they feel comfortable (and psychologically safe) talking to their leaders when they need support, then they’re probably not going to go rogue on you.

Democratizing decision making means more action can take place at the micro - or individual - level. Encouraging employees to take ownership of things that they care about contributes to higher engagement, which in turn leads to better organizational and customer outcomes.

And just because conversations and action are taking place at the edge, that doesn't mean the people at the top of the organization lose all ability to see what's going on. Distributed feedback platforms apply increasingly sophisticated machine learning to thousands of data points to generate the insights that power strategic or macro changes. That ability isn't lost - but it's no longer the only thing that's possible.

Listening to what people have to say is important. Doing something with that information is even more critical. Giving people at all levels of the organization the power to do something with their own information? That’s acting at the edge.

Action at the edge… in action

Arvid is a technician who installs new fiber connections and routers into homes for a large internet provider. After recently changing the type of router that Arvid’s team installs, the company decided to ask the technicians how they found working with the new devices.

The process: The question “Is there anything that would make installing the XR4500 Router easier for you?” popped up on Arvid’s mobile one day. He’d just had three jobs in a row where he found the screws supplied with the router weren’t appropriate for the particular install location.

Having to go out and get different screws was a minor annoyance at the time and Arvid didn’t think much of it. However, when thinking of opportunities for improvement, it was the first thing that came to mind.

Arvid’s feedback went straight to his manager. As someone who had also worked on install jobs, his manager recognized what a time sink small issues like this could be. After discussing with others on the team, it was clear there was an opportunity to improve.

The solution: The company simply packaged an extra set of screws with the router, so when the technician arrived on the job, they had options to cover different scenarios.

The result: Spending less time going back and forth for parts saved just a little bit of time in Arvid’s day, but across the many teams of technicians installing devices around the country, it’s a big win! And because the question was asked early in the new router rollout, the saving will be compounded across months of work ahead.

The alternative: If Arvid was only prompted for feedback at the annual survey, the team probably would have completed thousands of installs requiring extra trips for screws. And even then, his feedback would likely have gone up to a high level leadership report looking for broad issues to solve. That type of report tends to ignore these small opportunities and simply counts Arvid’s rating of 9 out of 10 as a positive result with no further action required.

July 14, 2021