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Friday, 18 February 2011

When is Democracy a bad thing?

It's a momentous time for Democracy. In Tunisia and Egypt, the population is clamouring for a genuine say in how the country is run. In the UK, we have to decide which is more democratic: first past the post, or the alternative vote. In the west, it is almost unthinkable not to have a form of democracy for public representation.

But would you apply democracy everywhere? Take business, for example. I have recently been working on a contract for a FTSE-250 company, guiding their information systems department through a reorganisation. They had taken the approach that the current heads of each section should develop the new organisation and create the objectives and terms of reference of each new team within the planned structure. Very democratic, you might think. The result was a structure to which all of the existing section heads had fully contributed and had "bought into".

However, there was a down side. Naturally, they each ensured that a nice piece of the organisation was created that could be led by themselves. This was not quite the optimum organisation, and there were a few who were not up to the task of leading a significant group within it.

So of course the responsible Director reviewed the organisation and decreed that whilst it was a distinct improvement over the status quo, some parts should be merged and others arranged slightly differently. The number of available leadership roles reduced significantly, and some existing leaders were going to be disappointed. The Director came out with the cliché: "This is not a democracy, it's a business."

So how do you get involvement, buy-in and commitment from your staff to new business initiatives? One extreme is to make the decisions yourself, as the business head, and your staff accept it or lump it. The other is to make the process entirely democratic, and then you have a result which is in the interests of the staff but not necessarily of the business.

There has to be a third way. Whether a small business or a FTSE company, to develop as an organisation requires all staff to make a contribution. They will generally know what would make their jobs easier, more efficient, more productive. The key skills that you as a manager can add are:
- Create the environment where staff are comfortable generating ideas and proposing changes.
- Ensure that you listen to opinions and get input.
- Make the final decision as to what gets implemented and what not.
- Provide a clear explanation to staff, not only regarding what will be done, but also why.

Because a business is not a democracy, but neither should it be a dictatorship.

To help with determining the best way to organise or change your business, it can often be constructive to use outside assistance. A third party can bring wider experience to bear, recommend what has worked elsewhere, help to make the business case viable, and crucially provide the time outside day to day operations to define and implement the change. We have wide experience of all kinds of business change, from organisation to IT to business development - contact us for more information.