Anyone with a position of seniority in an organization must navigate the distinction between managing and leading. Executing the actions already determined to be needed for a clearly defined result requires sharp management, while causing new futures to happen for an organization requires leadership.

Unfortunately, the market does not give us neatly packaged challenges that allow us to easily determine whether leadership or management is most appropriate at any given moment. In the fog of corporate leadership, we often turn to old ways of working even when a disruptive result—that calls for wholly new ways of thinking and acting—is needed for success.

The people that report to you perform inside of a structure that you provide them. The set of resources they can use (and those they can’t), the processes at their disposal, the agreements for how to work (like those found in a RACI) are all part of this structure. Everything someone uses to get their job done constitutes the structure that you, the leader, establish for them.

Most of the time, in the course of normal business, an employee should be able to fulfill the basic accountabilities of their job without a leader attending closely to this structure. Just keep doing what you’ve always been doing, and your people should be able to do their job.

The problem emerges when a leader needs to deliver more than what’s historically been produced. When a result requires special focus or a shift in thinking and action, then new structures become essential. Much of the time, a leader’s support of these kinds of initiatives stops at saying, “This is a priority.” The team must then propose how they’ll get the mission accomplished and puts the onus on them to change the structure inside of which they work. This is a poor strategy.

A better, but still insufficient approach, includes the commissioning of a special task force. New people who do not regularly work together are in a room with a mission to accomplish. Unless more fundamental elements of the structure are addressed, this won’t go far to producing a breakthrough; just more of what the organization is already good at doing.

You can’t simply ask people to produce more without giving them more. You can’t use old ways of working when you are interested in producing a breakthrough. You can’t ask people to be bold or empowered and maintain the old budget or decision-making structure in place. If you want people to deliver a breakthrough, you must give them the tools, the authority—in short, the structure—to make that impact.

Consider the following as elements as places to think from when redesigning the structure in which people operate:

  • In what areas does your team have a greater ability to propose changes to how they work?
  • What additional resources are at their disposal?
  • What are they empowered to act—or decide—upon that they were not before?

It is only once considering these questions, can you know your team is set up and empowered to deliver a breakthrough result.

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