Recently we wrote about how managing for innovation requires balancing four critical factors to produce a highly motivated and creative workforce. Perhaps the most difficult of those balancing acts is ensuring that employees have clear, meaningful goals as well as considerable autonomy (PDF) in meeting those goals. It's not easy, but some companies have pulled it off -- sometimes rather ingeniously.
At Valve Software, the award-winning video game developer, employees have almost completeautonomy in what they work on. Managers don't assign people to projects. Instead, projects grow organically, based on how many people want to work on them; employees with new ideas actively recruit others to join them. This Darwinian model involves a natural selection process, in which strong (i.e., really cool) projects staff up quickly because employees see them as valuable. Valve Software believes that, because everyone working there is really good at what they do, they can be trusted to make good decisions and work hard. As a result, these employees enjoy both goal clarity -- because they create the project goals themselves -- and strong autonomy. Because the projects they do are truly theirs, they are more likely to see the work they do as meaningful, a crucial element of work engagement.
Does this sound anything like the place where you work? Probably not. Valve's total autonomy in project choice wouldn't work for most organizations. For one thing, Valve only has about 250 employees. It is unlikely that this loose structure would scale well to much larger organizations. Second, because Valve is developing software, no large capital expenditure is required for initiating and implementing new products. This model would not be economically viable for an organization with large startup costs for product development.
But this doesn't mean that your organization can't borrow some ideas from Valve in trying to achieve that balance of goal clarity and autonomy.
First, the leaders at the top should articulate an inspirational mission, describing the overriding goals of the organization and how those goals serve both the organization and its customers. Second, leaders at all levels should communicate and model those goals to each employee, ensuring that everyone in the organization is on the same page. Third, local leaders -- those supervising people in the trenches -- should help all employees see how their own individual actions play a role in achieving the organization's goals. This is what provides meaning in the work.
If you're a leader, setting and communicating clear, inspiring strategic goals is hard enough. Giving people real autonomy in deciding how to achieve those goals is even harder. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to adopt a mindset of "checking in" with your subordinates rather than "checking up" on them. If you are mostly asking employees whether they finished this task or that task, then you are checking up on them. If you are constantly monitoring how people achieve their goals, then you are checking up. This is classic micromanagement, which makes people feel that their judgment, talents, and skills are not valued; it also constrains experimentation. As a result, it kills both motivation and creativity.
Instead, try asking questions like, "What do you need to get this project done?" "Is anything getting in your way?" or "What can I do to help out?" In this way, you can check in with people and find out how their projects are going without making them feel as if they are under constant surveillance. And, more importantly, you will be in a much better position to provide your people with the resources and help that they really need. Finally, checking in -- if done well -- means sharing information about what you are up to, especially if it might be relevant to what your team is doing.
Checking in is really about collaboration; checking up is about suffocation.
If you believe, as they do at Valve, that you hired people because they are good at what they do, then checking in makes much more sense than constantly checking up. In our own research, we have found that what people want most from their jobs, beyond equitable compensation, is the opportunity to succeed at meaningful work. The best managers know this, and figure out how to give people both clear goals and a real sense of ownership in the work.
If you have a story about a leader who checked in without checking up (or vice versa), we'd love to hear it.
This post originally appeared on The Harvard Business Review Blog.