Fostering a sense of ownership among employees can unleash tremendous capacity for innovation, says Edward Glassman. Like franchisees, who own their independent businesses but operate within a well-defined structure or system, empowered employees tend to be more entrepreneurial and committed to helping the organization to thrive.

I had just discussed leading a creativity meeting with a senior vice president of a large bank who wanted “creative ideas and paradigm shifts” (his description) to help his organization achieve ambitious goals. Going home, my colleague and I acknowledged the restrictive regulation of banks, and focused our creative thinking on internal structuring.

It struck me that in some ways the branches of a bank are like the franchises of a chain of stores. I then realized that all organizations, even teams within them, can be viewed as a hierarchy of empowered franchises.

A franchise is a system of doing business that enables large numbers of independent business people to purchase a ready-made, structured “system” for setting up a store or fast-food establishment, such as the ubiquitous McDonald’s chain.

Franchisees tend to be successful because they offer a unique combination of structure and creative freedom. The business person remains an independent entity, and can do as he or she chooses, within certain operational guidelines. Innovative practices within a store can be communicated among other franchisees, raising the level of performance of all stores.

Fostering ownership is key

The key is to foster a sense of ownership. People who feel they have a stake in their work are likely to be more committed and creative. The closer you come to this empowered franchise model, the more likely you are to find creativity and innovation, a sense of ownership, the entrepreneurial spirit, personal growth and achievement, a friendly environment, enjoyment at work, cooperation, teamwork, excellent customer relations and self-direction.

Each organization is a hierarchy of empowered franchises. Each level in the hierarchy is a franchise that grants an empowering franchise to the lower level. When viewed this way, many options and possibilities open up. For example, I recently read about how a bank empowered some branches to choose their own hours. With this new-found freedom, these branches soon started making other decisions that generated new business and increased profitability.

The type of franchise you grant will depend on the outcome you want. Do you want a sense of ownership, independent thinking, new ways to do things, a creative cauldron, innovation? Then grant a franchise that encourages this. If you want a tighter level of control, you can do that, too (although you will undoubtedly stifle innovation in the process).

This franchise metaphor is useful because there are hundreds of franchises you can analyze for inspiration. Each one empowers the franchisee in slightly different ways, each with its own effect on the creativity and innovation of the employees who work within them.

Edward Glassman, Ph.D. is a Professor Emeritus (retired) in the Department of Biochemistry of the Medical School of the University of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He can be contacted at his website.

Image: Starbucks cafe interior from