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12 November 2007

Changing Management

The Internet has changed how people interact with organisations yet, for too many organisations, internally they look the same as they did a decade or three ago. The result - a disconnect between what could be achieved and what actually happens. And the finger of blame usually points in the same direction -> middle management.

McKinsey has a stomper of an article - Innovative Management - A conversation with Gary Hamel and Lowell Bryan (free registration required to read) - discussing the challenges facing organisations. Traditional production line management in a world of change creates an inverse relationship with performance and profits.

Gary Hamel identifies the fundamental challenge:

¨When you read the history of management..., you realize that management was designed to solve a very specific problem—how to do things with perfect replicability, at ever-increasing scale and steadily increasing efficiency.¨

This should sound familiar to a lot of people, right back to the Pyramid builders. Do you have a standard job title and description shared with peers throughout the organisation? Are a set of standard objectives used to measure performance? That's traditional management. Define a role and reproduce it to scale outputs. For those in the role - your job is to 'do' not 'think'. What does the future look like? More of the same...

The challenge facing organisations is that more of the same no longer works. In the current environment, the winners are those who can adapt and change, quickly. But there is a hidden opportunity lurking inside all organisations. It turns out, who would have thought, thinking is not confined to managers. Lots of people do it. It's actually quite normal, a common human trait. Redundant in a production line that wants replicability. Invaluable when value comes from connecting ideas and expertise.

Back to Mr Hamel:

¨The winners will be those that enable their thinking-intensive employees to create more profits by putting their collective mind power to better use

...You cannot command those human capabilities. Imagination and commitment are things that people choose to bring to work every day—or not.¨

So what's stopping organisations from doing this? There are two issues that I think are common place.

The first is the outdated assumption about plebs* and managers: Plebs do the work, managers think and plan it. Plebs aren't concerned with strategy or the future, that's what managers worry about. Doing is replicable therefore plebs are easy to replace. None of this philosophy sticks when the 'doing' involves 'thinking'. But managers are still running the show and therein lies the problem...

The step from pleb to manager usually results in the heady combination of more money, more power and less work ('doing' is often measured in time-based outputs such as utilisation targets, management is about results). You might as well dish out free drugs while you're at it. Once addicted, few want to go back to doing and, somewhat ironically, the management club also looks like a production line:

Once you are in The Club, it can be all too easy to forget the messy life of doing. Names representing individual strengths become replaced with job titles in plans - this role will be doing that. (See also: Distracting Data) As job roles change, it is increasingly likely that managers make decisions about roles they have never actually done and therefore have little idea of what is or isn't achievable. Non-management opinions struggle to be heard, particularly when they challenge the plan. Reports (and rewards) focus on what the plan has achieved that it set out to do, not the missed opportunities and costly mistakes that result from refusing to change it. 'The benefit of hindsight' is used to justify inaction.

There is an added challenge if you live in a country with legislation protecting employee rights. Replicatable work is the easy option for management to help justify that everyone is being treated equally (that doesn't equate to fairly or correctly). It's lazy management. You can ensure equal opportunities and still embrace individual talents to increase performance. But more effort is placed on management to keep track of what's going on. That kills off the 'less work' part of the deal.

So what should management look like in the 21st Century? Yet again, Gary Hamel comes up trumps:

The management challenge is akin to urban planning. The art of it is that you must enable people to make thousands and thousands of individual decisions about how to live and work, but you have to create the infrastructure to make it easy for them to do so.

Management is becoming a more essential and skilled role than ever - coming up with, and executing, new ideas is much harder than repeating an established process. But so are the thinking-doing roles. Becoming a manager should not guarantee a move three rungs up the ladder of respect from non-managers. Organisations who insist on the pleb-management divide risk letting their best assets walk out of the door to become their next competitor (See also: The Digital Natives Are Leaving).

Related blog posts:

Filed Under: Changing Systems - Work

*I use 'pleb' in its original context - the plebeians. It seems ironic these days that 'pleb' is often used as an insult. Open and global access to information has shown how level the playing field is when it comes to acting with wisdom or stupidity...