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Climbing the ladder of control
It takes clarity and communication for team members to know when to act without asking, and when to ask before acting. The "ladder of control" can frame those conversations.
We are given permission
by the responsibility we accept
and carry out. Nothing more,
Simon Ortiz, from “Becoming Human”
When you work in a tiered decision structure, like a conventional organization, it is a constant challenge to balance coordination and autonomy. How can a team member, especially a new one, know when to act without asking, or when to ask before acting? And how can those relationships change with time, experience, and context?
Former submarine captain David Marquet developed an approach to this challenge, which he called the “ladder of control.”
The ladder offers seven levels of control for a team member in relation to their supervisor, from the least agency (“Tell me what to do…”) to the most agency (“I've been doing…”). The first requires explicit, prior direction and approval. The last allows full autonomy, with only occasional communication after the fact.
Level 7: “I’ve been doing…”
Level 6: “I just did…”
Level 5: “I intend to…”
Level 4: “Request permission to…”
Level 3: “I recommend…”
Level 2: “I think…”
Level 1: “Tell me what to do…”
Marquet used the ladder of control to encourage line-level individuals to rise to higher levels of control, and to encourage supervisors to release control where appropriate. Writes Marquet:
You may notice a lot of “tell me what to do” when you listen to the conversations around you. Oftentimes, it does not sound exactly like “tell me what to do” but that’s in essence what it is. For example, reporting a problem to the boss without a proposed solution (or a path toward getting a solution) is a veiled “tell me what to do.”
With a little bit of awareness you can peg where people are on this continuum and coax them up. As you move up, shifting control and psychological ownership to the subordinate, their minds will engage, and typically involvement and passion will follow.
This framework can be enlightening and clarifying when you’re designing a job, welcoming a team member, or even analyzing a long-standing practice. It can also increase autonomy and authority among the people best positioned to act, and remind supervisors to let them try.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Marketing
Marketing involves creating, communicating, and reinforcing expected or experienced value.
Framework of the Week: Ladder of Control
A framework for helping teams and their leaders learn when to act without asking, and when to ask before acting.
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