Trust and Speed: Lessons from Percy Barnevik

Percy WP

How do you get a large, multinational company to move fast? You do what Percy Barnevik did at ABB in the late 80’s and early 90’s. You push decision making to the lowest level and embed a culture of decisiveness at all levels.

What seems like a simple idea is actually very difficult. For large companies, the desire for certainty as well as a need for command and control tends to force decision making to the top. Companies then add layers of bureaucracy to ensure compliance with the orders from headquarters. The result is a slow moving, cumbersome organization where employees are not encouraged to color outside the lines.

Barnevik did not want this for his new company. In 1988, when he created ABB by pulling off the largest merger in European history, he quickly moved to embed a culture of decisiveness. He did this by keeping operating units small, limiting the decisions coming out of headquarters, and preaching the value of decisiveness.

I was running one of those operating units in ABB at the time and it was one of the best jobs I ever had. As I discussed in Barnevik on Decisiveness, I loved working for Barnevik. He got things done. He was decisive and he expected the same from his employees. The company culture at that time reflected his personality. We moved fast and we fixed it along the way.

The main thing I remember from that time is that Barnevik trusted us to make decisions. He had faith in his business unit leaders. He knew that we would occasionally make mistakes but he trusted us to always make it right. There was a culture of speed, decisiveness, and forgiveness. If you made a bad decision, it was not the end of your career. You were expected to fix it and move on.

What do you think? Have you worked in a similar fast-moving culture where there was trust at the top? What was it like? Have you worked in a heavily bureaucratic organization? How was that experience? How does the company culture affect your attitude towards your job? Let me know in the comment section below.

 

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