As a lifelong supporter of Preston North End I’m used to disappointment. Since my first visit to Deepdale, aged 5, in 1971, the closest I have seen my team come to glory are two Championship play-off final defeats.

Even so, the last year or so has probably been North End’s most disappointing period in the past 25 years. I love sitting with my dad and sons to watch the home games, but, as PNE had managed just five home victories in over 15 months, my patience, and willingness to undertake the 300 mile round trip, was being sorely tested. Unsurprisingly, the manager was relieved of his duties a week or so ago.

A curious thing then happened – North End won! In fact they beat the league leaders comfortably. The caretaker manager told the media that he had wanted the team to play with more freedom, and not to worry about any mistakes they might make. Similarly, the players talked about how they felt more relaxed and less under pressure to do things ‘just right’.

If I were to ask you about the working environment that best helps you perform and gives you the biggest sense of satisfaction, I imagine that you would want to work on something that has real meaning to you in such a way that exploits and builds on your strengths, and where you are clear on the objective but free to work out the best way to achieve the goal.

And what’s true for you – and for PNE’s struggling players – is also true for your people. Not only does an approach of increased personal autonomy and accountability lead to better results, it also leads to greater pace as a result of less managerial interference and control, greater job satisfaction and reduced staff turnover, and greater levels of innovation.

So how can you make this happen? Here are five practical ways that you can create a working environment of greater autonomy and accountability for your business:

  • Let your teams set their own goals. Most goals and objectives are top-down, but in my experience you will gain far greater commitment and energy where you allow your teams to set their own goals. In a recent client project, for example, the divisional team I worked with created a goal – and supporting strategy – that was in excess of the CEO’s original expectations.
  • Focus on results, not methods. Once you have agreed personal and team goals, allow your people to determine the best way to reach them. They may ask for your support and advice, but don’t enforce your own ‘best way’ to get there. Research by the Gallup Organization has found that the best managers are those that agree the required outcomes with their people, ensure that each person’s strengths are being maximised and manage individual performance and results through regular contact, not annual appraisals.
  • Reward behaviours as well as results. Even though you should be focused on results ahead of methods, you should also reward behaviours and not just results. You need to support people who are willing to take prudent risks, make real-time decisions and try something new. Almost inevitably, this will be associated with a fair degree of failure, but if you only reward those who ‘succeed’ you will quickly end up with a risk-averse organisation. Rewards don’t need to be financial – in fact research has shown that such rewards lower commitment – but can be a simple and sincere ‘thank you’ or public and peer recognition.
  • Support ‘pet project’ time. Google’s Gmail and 3M’s ‘post-it notes’ were both developed through their respective company’s policy of allowing staff to work on any topic of their choosing for one day a week. What ideas would your teams develop if you let them loose for even just half-a-day each week to pursue their own dreams on your behalf?
  • Create ‘open source’ projects. Innovations including Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, Linux’s computer servers and Wikipaedia have all been developed by people who contribute their time and skills for free. There is no – or limited – formal organisation of these contributors, but the ‘open source’ approach has created highly valuable results. What projects in your business could be run as ‘open source’ initiatives that are freely developed by the skills and commitment from people right across your organisation?

I’ve experienced too many false dawns to be confident that Preston’s recent results will last. However, I do believe that in the twenty-first century, you will only succeed in business where you build a working environment that truly engages, inspires and maximises the commitment and capability of your people.

Which of these five approaches could help you build commitment, raise innovation, drive pace and accelerate growth for your business?

© Stuart Cross 2013. All rights reserved.