The need for speed has never been greater. Empowered customers are fickle. Big tech is disintermediating you. Disruptors lurk in the darkest corners of your markets, ready to rise krakenlike to swallow your floundering ship whole. Your prospects are bleak.

A depressing way to end the week? Perhaps not.

Speed of execution is more vital than ever. But management techniques developed in the age of manufacturing and distribution, in times of predictability and certainty, fail in times of disruption. Eric Ries describes this challenge in The Startup Way. The tension between creating a strategic vision that embraces uncertainty, maintaining a hands-off approach to management, and diving into the comfortable detail of execution mean too many digital business leaders create what author Nilofer Merchant calls the “air sandwich” — a clear gap between strategy and execution.

To compete, digital business leaders must empower cross-functional teams to innovate, delegating decisions to those as close to the customer as possible. If you think this sounds like corporate anarchy, think again. Ironically, the answer lies in more, not less, structure. Lightweight governance frameworks and progressive leadership can empower autonomous teams — but only when applied intelligently.

Leaders who champion autonomy know that:

  • Autonomy leads to speed. As a digital business leader, it’s your job to create a culture of managed empowerment where teams make decisions as close to the customer as possible.
  • Communication is key. Two-way trust and communication is vital. Leaders must clearly articulate their intent, and team members must speak up if they need more clarity. Encourage your teams to challenge you.
  • Governance isn’t a dirty word. Lightweight governance frameworks and light-touch leadership are the keys to unlock faster digital delivery.

Our latest report, “Empower Autonomous Teams To Accelerate Digital Delivery,” examines exactly how to do this. We’ve spoken to leaders in high-performing businesses, such as Capital One, Elsevier, La Redoute, L’Oréal, Zalando, and more, to understand how they unlock autonomy, and we’ve also studied the lessons the military have learned, adopting command-and-control structures to rapidly respond to the dynamic environments today’s armed forces find themselves in. While I’m normally hesitant of using military analogies for business strategy, many of the leadership lessons hard-won by specialist units like the Navy SEALs apply directly to the world of business.