SWAT Teams and the compensation of the entrepreneurial knowledge worker
Today current employees are asked every day for more flexibility and it is increasingly difficult to keep a work-life balance due to the ever-increasing number of concurrent initiatives decided by the board to maximize the stock value of the company or by senior management to improve the organization’s bottom-line. Innovation, sustainability, etc. have become part of the business landscape and generate new projects that have to be carried by a decreasing work force on top of business-as-usual.
In this context, one can question whether the traditional organization types are still appropriate. Trying to do everything at once, the risk is high to pay lip service to some of these topics and it is not rare to hear comments like “This initiative is focusing more on communication and image than fundamental changes in the organization”.
This article tries to identify potential opportunities to improve the situation.
Current Trends and Limitations
Knowledge worker and the untapped potential
Today a significant part of the employee population can be considered as knowledge workers. The concept of the knowledge worker was introduced more than 20 years ago by Peter Drucker, among others. The worker provides added value by making a specific knowledge available to the company at the appropriate time rather than by performing repetitive tasks. People have more and more education but this potential is not always exploited. It is not rare to have people with one or more post-graduate diplomas. However, the knowledge is not transformed into skills by lack of learning opportunities.
Everybody agrees on that, yet nobody seems to make any change about it.
The traditional organization compensates the worker for 7 to 8 hours a day and expects him to accomplish significantly more than his job description for a limited bonus. The problem lies in the fact that the worker cannot easily focus on adding value due to several organizational constraints that have little to do with his/her main mission:
- reading emails (everybody needs to know a bit of everything because often there is a lack of real delegation and too many people are involved in topics); this can amount to 10-20% of the time (2 hours per day), depending on the function.
- rework due to slow projects facing too many changes: the slower a project goes the more likely there will be changes driven by external circumstances without generating the value of the work already accomplished (Stop-and-Go cycles)
- attending meetings, e.g. steering committees being in fact informative rather than decision making sessions, useless “coordination” meetings where everything is shared but nothing gets done; this can easily be 10% of the available time, sometimes much more.
- Administrative effort: e.g. countless days spent in preparing and fine-tuning the budgets that in the end are not really monitored or serve little purpose.
The worker does not mind to do all the above because he is paid a fixed salary anyway.
However, the overall productivity of the knowledge worker is dramatically impacted by the expectations from the traditional organization. As much as 50% of the available time can be eaten up by activities with little or no added value.
The question is then: should the worker be paid for the time spent in the office or for the results he brings to the company?
How does the organization keep the worker motivated?
In many organizations there are not enough career opportunities available, or there is not enough delegation of power: how many people can decide to spend 100kEuros/year on their own nowadays? Make it even 20kEuros without approval by the manager.
People do not feel empowered enough, they are responsible but have little authority to reach the objectives. Some people need to be able to take risks, to be entrepreneurs.
Bonuses are often spread almost equally among employees: the variance is too small to motivate people to outperform.
Few objective measurements are put in place: the evaluation is in the end left to the manager appreciation, often remaining subjective.
Serious commitment to innovation ?
While every organization is promoting innovation to stay competitive, limited amounts of money are effectively invested in innovation. Lip-service is commonplace: idea boxes are there to collect ideas but few resources are available to follow-up on these ideas and no serious budgets are available. People are evaluated based on the number of ideas per year they have put in the box but this criteria amounts for … 5% of the total performance review. How good is this? What are the results so far?
Are organizations truly innovative? Do organizations spend internally enough to experiment new things? How many spin-offs have been created within organizations over the last 10 years?
Potential solutions- Call for change
SWAT teams for Projects:
In order to be able to work efficiently on projects and implement the relay runner ethic (concept developed in the critical chain concept by E. Goldratt), SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams could help.
The SWAT concept was developed in the 1960’s in the US to be able to react to special situations such as hostage recovery. The regular police was indeed not properly trained for this special type of operations, so they decided to specialize at least one unit per state in fast and dangerous operations.
We could make a parallel with special projects within organizations. Large projects need to be managed differently from regular operations and require different skills. So it could be a good idea to constitute a corps of project-oriented people who are specialized in this field.
These teams are dedicated (full-time) project teams that are:
Small- there is no dead weight, everybody is fully committed to the task at hand, 100% of their time for the whole duration of the project. Team members can be fully detached from their department, which would allow them to focus on the project and get the work done muck quicker; after the project they can be reassigned to their departments (e.g. for a subject matter expert) or move on to other projects (in the case of a project manager). The team should typically be restricted to around 4 people with different skills (e.g. 1 project manager, 1 process expert, 1 IT expert and one customer representative). Having more people on the team, there is always someone relying on another person to make progress.
Whole-hearted: a strong focus of the team creates a very strong alignment towards the objectives
Accountable: Each team member should be fully responsible for one aspect of the project and should have authority through his/her line manager in charge of the quality of the related deliverable. This creates empowerment and motivation.
Time-conscious: Having a small team enables to build deliverables and make decisions quicker; no time wasted in heavy multi-tasking.
Compensation of the entrepreneurial knowledge worker
In order to further motivate the project teams, “9 to 5” work schedules could be banned. Results are expected as soon as possible, so people should be given more freedom on the way they achieve results. This type of work has peaks and valleys in terms of work effort over time: some periods are very intensive and the team should put in significant extra time to meet deadlines, and some other periods, especially between projects or even during some phases of the project, people should be able to recharge their batteries and not come to work.
All what should matter are the benefits made by the project.
Once objectives are set or approved by management, the team should be given “carte-blanche” in how to perform the work- as long as the project does not impact negatively the organization itself. It should be given its own budget, and once approved let him/her spend it for the best.
A parallel can be made with Sales Reps that are most of the time on the road, and reporting remotely to the organization.
Along with this practice comes the adapted compensation package. Commissions on the results of the project could be an excellent incentive to the team that would then act more like real entrepreneurs.
An idea could be to reward the team by distributing as commission a percentage of the profits made, equally among team members: this will foster real teamwork and motivate people. A bit like US lawyers who earn a percentage of the earnings from trials, the difference being that their earnings are fully dependent on the success which may not be appropriate for employees of a company.
By instituting this entrepreneurial state-of-mind employees could be more motivated to really innovate. An alternative could be to reserve time in an employee schedule for innovation. Google allows 20% “free” time for exploring to its engineers. They are free to make use of this time the way they want.
In the end the only thing that matters are results, not the time spent in the office.
The expectations from employees are quickly evolving but the organizations do not change at the same pace: more delegation and more risk-taking are needed to innovate.
SWAT teams and a revised compensation of the entrepreneurial knowledge workers could help.
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