As the amount and pace of change in technology, business models, economic interdependence, workplace demographics, etc… continues at a dizzying rate, companies face even more choices for how to operate. A tension that many organizational leaders grapple with as their companies grow, adapt and change, is how much freedom vs. control is needed in individual and team decision-making. For good reason, leaders of organizations worry about the extremes. If decision-making is too free and lax, it can feel like the wild west with everyone tackling decisions in a different way, and no sense of coherence. On the flip side, being too rigid and over-controlling can stifle flexibility, creativity and make adaptation nearly impossible. Either of these extremes can cause frustration, poor morale, inefficiency and wasted time and effort.

Bolman (2003) captures this tension well in the quip, “how to hold an organization together, without holding it back.” Of course, the question isn’t whether to have controls or not. The question is what balance of controls will allow for the kind of healthy functioning you want.

A great set of on-going conversations for a company’s leaders to have together are ones that surface where they should be “loose” (i.e. more open, experimental, emergent and even playful), and where they must remain “tight” (i.e. more procedural, bounded and rule-based). The balance of this tension will look different for each organization, and paying attention to it will result in easier adaptation over time. Each organization needs to come up with its own response to these questions — below are some factors we have considered at The Refinery, as well as when working with client organizations.


When thinking about where “loose” decision-making (i.e. low in rules, policy and prescription) can allow for healthy levels of ownership, engagement, creativity and flexibility:

Core responsibilities, not job descriptions: The traditional job description, with its laundry list of duties and activities, has become an artifact from the industrial era.  Job descriptions typically focus on tasks which can quickly become out-dated and hold people to activities at the expense of outcomes. A more helpful approach is to use core responsibilities that hold people accountable to an agreed set of outcomes, rather than the tasks or activities. This way, there is leeway on how to accomplish results and room to shape roles to suit people’s strengths and passions. Agreeing to a few important outcomes and allowing space for how to achieve them allows for faster adjustments and more relevant contributions from people.

Freedom to experiment: If everyone is encouraged and allowed to take risks in their work (e.g. change the process, redesign how work gets done, jump on insights, try untested ideas, etc.) chances are higher that innovation will happen. This will look different for different areas of the business, but it is critical for everyone to think about and act on ideas for change and improvement. This of course requires some allowance of time and resources, and a willingness to accept that there will be mistakes, unwanted consequences and failures along the way.

Room to bring individual ideas, aspirations, and talents to work: It is imperative that we seek out and demand for people to bring their “whole selves” to work. It should be clear that each person, beyond their role and main responsibilities, can live out and work towards their aspirations. This might look like encouraging people to move into different parts of the business even without the credentials and experience. It could look like allowing people to look, dress and “show up” as they are, with no need to wear the “mask.” The upside is people expend less energy on fitting in and managing what other people think, and more energy on fulfilling work commitments.

Open sharing of almost all firm information: If everyone is exposed to as much operational and financial information as possible, they will be able to make decisions that are better for the organization. The more exposure people have to other parts of the system, the more equipped they are to focus efforts and support each other. When people “get” how the organization creates value they are in a better position to make more informed decisions in their own sphere. For this reason, it is beneficial for everyone to have access to financial statements, product/service revenues, project status, customer feedback and evaluations, lessons learned, etc.

Allow and encourage subcultures: Subcultures (i.e. groups whose values, norms, practices are different but not diametrically opposed to other subcultures) allow for individuals to identify with different groups over time. In addition to relating to the values espoused by the corporate culture, people can live out personal and peripheral value sets, potentially binding them closer to the organization overall. By creating space for individuals to connect with different people and different parts of the organization, the chances they’ll engage and give more effort is increased.


When thinking about where “tight” decision making (i.e. high in rules with close supervision, controls and measures) can allow for healthy levels of responsibility, productivity, and accountability:

Team agreements: Each time a team grows, shrinks or changes, there is an opportunity to clarify roles and responsibilities. Whether this is captured visually or in writing, it is important to establish and coordinate team responsibilities for agreed-upon outcomes, and to ensure that everyone’s expectations are aligned. Teams are an important vehicle for how work gets done in organizations. Teams require more than tasks; they require trust, communication, care, challenge and support. Being explicit about these behaviours can strengthen organizations exponentially.

Execution on firm goals and targets: This is one of the more challenging aspects of organizational life. Well captured in Bossidy and Charan’s aptly titled book Execution, they deduced that a major cause of performance, falling short of expectation, is poor execution. “Execution is a systematic way of exposing reality and acting on it.” It is a consistent, disciplined way of people and teams reporting back on what they said they would do. This usually takes the form of regular meetings, check-ins, progress reports, and follow-ups. When there is a regular rhythm of checking in, there is a higher motivation and willingness to complete the promised action.

Selective recruitment: The “fit” criteria for entry to the company should not be compromised, ever. Beyond technical or professional fit, people should be vetted for alignment with the core behaviours that the organization believes are paramount for success.

Quality Control: Since we are only as good as our last interaction with a customer, there is little room for low quality products or services. This is why it is extremely valuable for quality control to be a part of doing business in every function, whether it is internally and externally facing.

On-going professional development: Whether formal or informal, whether company-sponsored or pursued individually, whether skill-based or knowledge based, everyone should promise and commit to on-going development. This builds competence, confidence and organizational competitive advantage.


By examining and agreeing where you should be “loose” and where you must be “tight” as a team, department or company, you’ll find a balance that allows for the best of both.

May 10, 2017 • in Opinion
  • At The Refinery, we accelerate development of the leadership you need to achieve your organization’s full potential in a rapidly changing business world.


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