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Smooth Sailing in Rough Seas

Developing a strategic plan is essential in your journey to success. But it is only the first step. Having set your destination, its time to set sail for those undiscovered territories. How well your crew navigates the turbulent currents ahead will determine whether you arrive in the promised land.

But at Captain Ahab's Academy of Management you studied only bureaucratic control. You learned to make policies and write procedures, establish a hierarchy, clearly define each person's role along the journey, and monitor performance. The more explicit the process, the firmer the control and the more efficient the journey's progress.

Nobody mentioned the alternatives to bureaucratic control. There wasn't a class called “Substitutes for Bureaucracy.” If there had been, you might have learned that, though everyone must work together, there are other ways to achieve coordination and control. There are ways to promote harmony without using a "cat-o'-nine-tails" … mechanisms that bureaucracies overlook or leave to chance.

Substitutes for bureaucracy.

Here are some things you can do to minimize bureaucracy and avoid a mutiny, while still maintaining control of your ship as it sales into unknown waters.

Chart a clear course. Set clear, measurable goals to operationalize your strategy -- goals your employees can share in. If you do, there's no need to monitor their every move or tell them how to do their job. Does it really matter how the crew sets the sails or swabs the decks, so long as the ship stays on course, achieves maximum speed, and no one slips on deck?

Unite the Crew. Mutual adjustment through interpersonal communication is the simplest form of coordination. It is co-workers talking together about how to accomplish their common goals. Quality circles and other types of organizational teams promote coordination and reduce the need for supervision. When the crew is allowed to coordinate their own activities to achieve the task, the captain is free to exercise vision and scan the horizon.

Buoy the culture. A positive organizational culture, though often invisible, can be the most potent coordinating force in the organization. When the culture is healthy, it replaces policies and procedures with norms and values. Self-control and peer pressure replace oversight and hierarchy. The Captain need never discipline a sailor who's not pulling his weight; the rest of the crew sees that he gets the message.

Enlist professionals. Qualified professional staffs know their roles and know how to perform their jobs. Rather than requiring close supervision, they have developed internal direction through professional education and training. You don't have to fit them into boxes — they come prepackaged. A professional crew can tell when the sails need trimming or when the ship is off course. Moreover, they understand their part in regaining speed and resuming progress.

What kind of captain do you aspire to be?

Some executives feel threatened when confronted with the thought of a self-reliant, talented, united crew. Those who want to truly lead should ask themselves what they value more: arriving at a worthwhile destination, or hearing their own voices raised in authority, even if their demands drift unheard across the sea.

Recommended reading: Flight of the buffalo: Soaring to excellence, learning to let employees lead, by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer, Warner Books.

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