Photo: Studio Edit

Parti­ci­pa­tion is chal­len­ging, important and valuable

Companies that identify the right amount of participation for their own organisation can expect innovation, motivated staff and a high degree of identification.

Parti­ci­pa­tion entails actively inte­gra­ting employees into the decis­ion-making process, be it in team meetings, with surveys, via invol­vement in projects or through topic-focu­sed work­shops. Along­side obtai­ning multi­ple perspec­ti­ves and promo­ting inno­va­tion, the aim is to turn employees from people who simply carry out tasks into people who are actively involved.

Parti­ci­pa­tory proces­ses go hand-in-hand with orga­ni­sa­tio­nal deve­lo­p­ment. After all, discus­sing topics of rele­vance to a company repres­ents change in the desi­red direc­tion. These proces­ses help raise aware­ness. Explo­ring a speci­fic topic attracts people’s atten­tion to it – and things that are being moni­to­red tend to undergo change. In times marked by hola­cracy and socio­cracy, flat hier­ar­chies and agility, scrum, kanban and lean manage­ment, the prin­ci­ple of parti­ci­pa­tion is no longer rocket science. Or so you might think. But while this seems crys­tal-clear in theory, in prac­tice, it’s about jointly finding out which model works best for your own orga­ni­sa­tion. Hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­sa­ti­ons are working on moti­vat­ing their employees to be more entre­pre­neu­rial and take more respon­si­bi­lity. Compa­nies with flat­ter struc­tures, conver­sely, are often enga­ged with defi­ning clear respon­si­bi­li­ties and decis­ion-making proces­ses. Both are pursuing the same goal: estab­li­shing effec­tive, sustainable work proces­ses that move the company forward. 

A new design 

If an orga­ni­sa­tion is mana­ged in the tradi­tio­nal manner, intro­du­cing parti­ci­pa­tory approa­ches first calls for a new design to be deve­lo­ped: employees need to under­stand why it’s neces­sary for each and every one of them to get invol­ved. This beha­viou­ral shift towards active employees requi­res manage­ment, the company’s lear­ning culture and even, poten­ti­ally, its exis­ting struc­tures to undergo a simul­ta­neous shift. A change of this nature can succeed if mana­gers are honestly inte­res­ted in new ideas and are open towards the process. Inno­va­tion is possi­ble when parti­ci­pa­tion isn’t about paying lip service, when it isn’t just about confir­ming pre-exis­ting, pre-concei­ved opini­ons. If the process can be initia­ted in a targe­ted yet open-minded way, there is scope to jointly deve­lop measu­res that have a real impact and get the whole orga­ni­sa­tion moving.

Risks of being perso­nally overstretched

The chall­enge often takes on a diffe­rent guise at stron­gly value-driven orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, such as NGOs, foun­da­ti­ons and social enter­pri­ses. Here, employees are usually intrin­si­cally moti­va­ted and actively get invol­ved. They’re passio­nate about a cause – until this passion consu­mes them. They give their all, and more, for the shared mission, doing their bit, enga­ging in discus­sions, until people lose sight of who’s respon­si­ble for what. Decis­i­ons are defer­red time and again to get as many people on board as possi­ble. If a decis­ion is made none­thel­ess, the outcome can be ques­tio­ned vehe­men­tly by an indi­vi­dual person – and that’s enough to leave things on shaky ground again. The result: the process gets stuck and the orga­ni­sa­tion has lost its ability to make decis­i­ons. Highly moti­va­ted employees get more and more frus­tra­ted, and people who star­ted off on the same page end up poles apart. This often gives rise to infor­mal struc­tures of power: an orga­ni­sa­tion with flat hier­ar­chies turns into an orga­ni­sa­tion with a small number of decision-makers.

Defi­ning clear roles

The major chall­enge lies in clari­fy­ing how decis­i­ons are made and how people ascer­tain who bears respon­si­bi­lity for what. How can multi­ple perspec­ti­ves be used to reach a consen­sus in a reasonable period of time, even if not ever­yone agrees? The prin­ci­ple of consent, for instance, is one option. Under this approach, the final decis­ion is made by an expert. Colla­bo­ra­tion is based on trust – and that’s the same across every orga­ni­sa­tion. So, before you start a process, it’s worth setting out rules for this colla­bo­ra­tion. After all, diffe­ren­ces of opinion are simply a matter of course. In fact, you could say that that’s exactly what it’s all about: you want diffe­rent perspec­ti­ves to be included, but you do need binding rules for this. 

Firstly, having a clear goal is key. Then, you can draw on this goal to derive clear tasks and roles, not to mention the asso­cia­ted expec­ta­ti­ons. After all, this will serve as a guide for all those invol­ved. Secondly, a cons­truc­tive culture of error tole­rance enables people to express them­sel­ves criti­cally. Parti­ci­pants should be able to trust that they can share their views openly, without any worries or fear of adverse conse­quen­ces. Thirdly, careful, timely and trans­pa­rent plan­ning when it comes to commu­ni­ca­ting the core team’s updates is criti­cal.  If other people in the project are unable to under­stand why a parti­cu­lar decis­ion was made because they were left out of commu­ni­ca­tion, this leads to a good deal of uncer­tainty and great poten­tial for frus­tra­tion. Compa­nies who want ever­yone invol­ved to think and act inde­pendently should ensure that respon­si­bi­li­ties, skills and the decis­ion-making process are clear, trans­pa­rent and reviewed on an ongo­ing basis. Ideally via a parti­ci­pa­tory process.

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