How to Get Over Your Controlling Ways

There is a famous quote attributed to the legendary race car driver Mario Andretti:

If everything appears to be under control, then you’re just not going fast enough.

Control is a wonderful thing, but it is fundamentally incompatible with outstanding speed. When you control things you can maintain quality or manage your costs more effectively, but you’ll have to give up speed in the process. Just remember that old adage that you may have heard from a consultant or service provider at some point in your career: good, fast, and cheap—pick two.

But does that really cut it in today’s world? We have the internet and digital technology now. We have more information at our fingertips than our grandparents even knew existed. Hasn’t the game changed?

Well it has for some smart companies. Happy State Bank is a regional bank in Texas that grew from $10 million to $2.5 billion over a period of 24 years, and they have very specifically mastered the art of being fast, despite being in a regulated industry. They can go from thinking about opening a branch to actually serving customers in that branch in four days. They make their loan decisions nearly twice as fast as their competitors.

And as Andretti would have predicted, they accomplish this speed by giving up control. Their local loan committees, for example, can approve loans to a much higher amount than their competitors’ can, which is part of what enables their speed. But here is the real trick when it comes to giving up control. No one ever gives up control unless they can replace it with trust.

We give up control when we realize that we can trust others to be more independent. So understanding exactly what drives that trust becomes more important than making any single decision about keeping or relinquishing control. For Happy State Bank, interestingly enough, they have learned to trust in the strength and power of both internal and external relationships that employees at the bank make in order to give up some of that control. They know each other so well and they know their customers so well—and they continuously invest in building and strengthening those relationships in order to maintain that—they can turn over control to local committees without seeing a decline in quality of decision making (only 20 out of their 12,000 loans were more than 30 days past due when I talked to them).

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This is our challenge as organizations in the 21st century. Where can we systematically build trust that will enable the kind of speed we need to stay competitive? For Happy State Bank it was in the art and science of relationship building, which they have woven deeply into their culture by modifying their processes accordingly. For example, they don’t have a call center, despite their size and customer base. If customers have questions, they end up speaking to actual people at their local branch. That way, when they come into the branch later, it presents an opportunity for that employee to strengthen an existing relationship—something that could not be accomplished at a call center.

So how will you change your culture to unlock speed? You’ll have to look deep to figure out where you can put your trust that will enable the kind of leap-ahead speed that Happy State Bank has achieved. Look for processes where an insertion of trust might free up resources or create opportunities for speed. Challenge your current assumptions about what truly drives the success of your enterprise, because they are likely rooted in traditional, control-based thinking. Then run some experiments at the edges to see where new trust generates speed, and then start reorienting your culture in that direction. The longer you wait to try, the farther behind you’ll fall.


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Jamie Notter

Jamie is a founding partner at WorkXO where he helps leaders create stronger cultures and upgrade their workplaces, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, leadership, and culture change to the consulting firm he started with Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy in 2016. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, and Humanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

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