Imagine a small independent cafe on a high street. There’s a one day market and fair outside, and at the end of the day one of the stall owners walks in for some coffee and the staff comment on his tree. “you can have it, I’ve got no use for it after today”. What would the manager of the cafe have to think about before giving a quick answer? This is nice gesture, so long as it doesn’t take up too much room and we can get rid of it then why not.
But I saw this happen not in a small independent cafe but in Costa coffee. The supervisor was friendly but of course instantly said no. What would head office say if they found out? Almost certainly this would be a big issue, and probably one that the supervisor (or me, or you) couldn’t even guess. May be a H&S issue (customers could get tree flu?), maybe head office had decided they didn’t want to ‘offend other faiths’ with a tree. Maybe they will go mad about removal costs, or cleaning, or that it’s bad PR as environmentalists don’t like seeing chopped down trees for coffee shop decoration. The possibilities are endless.
And if by chance head office didn’t go mad about this, the best thing you can expect is no reaction at all, nothing positive. Yup, a million reasons to say no, no reason to say yes.
And that’s an example of a problem I have always found with large chains and organisations. There suddenly becomes a million things to worry about.
There’s an example I’m trying to remember which involved the company that made autoroute. One of the staff there had said something which had made the news not too long after it was bought by Microsoft. You can see why (as a made up example of what it could have been!) “small UK company prefers borland’s development tools to the Microsoft equivalent” is not news. “Microsoft prefers borland’s development tools to the Microsoft equivalent” is big news. By being part of a big company your employee’s have a lot more to think about – and worry about – when doing their job.
When sitting back and deciding how I would run a major organisation (as you do), I come to the conclusion that the Unilever (or P&G) approach is better than the normal one taken by others. These companies have loads of brands, but rarely strongly associate the brand with the parent company to the end user. Ice cream from Walls, mustard from Colmans, etc. You get the impression that the different parts of the company are highly devolved. So long as they make a good profit the parent company is happy to let them do their own thing. Take Sony at the other end, their music division is run by shits and it looks bad for the rest of the organisation (which so happens to be making shit products as well, like HP).
So why this title? Well two things really, but I think they are closely related.
1: once an organisation reach a certain size, you get dis-economies of scale as well as economies of scale. A big factor in this is ensuring all sing from the same hyme book and that those at the ‘local level’ aren’t doing things that those at the top (many levels away) have discussed and decided against, and that one way around this is to make different parts of the company businesses in their own right. There may be some duplication of effort (each HR department having to discuss/decide similar things) but that can be easier than one central unit deciding on something, trying to take the needs of the whole of a large org in to account and communicating it (with the other thousand things that are going on) to all employees.
2: The empowering employees is such an obvious thing to say. But if organisations such as coffee chains want to stop those who say they are destroying the high street with their identi-kit look, they have to let good local (shop) managers make decisions, and those decisions may not be the same as the head office H&S or PR guys would do, but those decisions help to make their stores unique and human.
Here endif the rant.