A really, really big idea

(Cartoon by Gary Larson)

Much of what we practice as management today is unthinking and ineffective. And it’s been that way for a long time.

There’s plenty of research to show that the way we recruit people, measure their performance, and promote them are all seriously flawed.

Our budgeting, strategic planning, and other big-company processes – even the ways we organize ourselves – are are so universally maligned as to be comic, inspiring cartoons, TV shows, movies, and even a board game. (“Dilbert”, “The Office”, “Office Space”, and “The Peter Principle Board Game” to name a few.)

They’re funny because they’re true. We’re all going through the same management theater even though we all know it’s not working well.

But it’s not that we’ve been stupid. It’s that we’ve had the wrong model for how an enterprise should work.

What’s wrong?

For the last 100+ years, our model for the modern corporation has been a machine, and all the players in it merely parts.

This has had some upside and, for certain kinds of work, still does. We focused on process, repeatability, and automation. We became much more efficient at making and moving things.

The problems arose when we applied that mechanical model to everything we do in a company.

In applying this mechanistic model, we’ve tried to take the human out of work. We created management processes for everything, organized people into discrete units to implement parts of those processes, and then measured inputs and outputs.

The corporate machine would work well if only everyone knew their part and all the parts were aligned properly,

But we aren’t aligned like cogs. Much of management is about people. And people, to quote Trisha Liu, are “messy.”

What’s possible?

Humanize”, an excellent book by Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, points to another way, “a dramatic shift away from our mechanical model and toward a more human way of running our organizations.”

Importantly, “Humanize” doesn’t preach overhauling everything we do but seeks to complement our mechanical model with a more natural, biological approach to work. To embrace our humanity and create a working environment that’s more agile and self-organizing. One that tries many new things and fails but, in so doing, is more adaptive and likely to survive.

How might we achieve this? What would it look like? Since it’s not a machine, there’s no blueprint. No mechanistic model to try and replicate.

Instead, the authors demonstrate how core elements of our humanity can be applied and used as a latticework – like amino acids in a double helix – upon which a modern business can grow.

What’s next?

Changing our very concept of an enterprise is a really, really big idea. It’s heretical. It goes against everything we’ve been taught. It’s different from what everybody else is doing.

It’s akin to what the first quantum physicists went through – and are still going through – as they overturned centuries of Newton’s classical mechanical model of the universe. From “Humanize”:

“Going against centuries of scientific truth is not easy, even for the scientists who led the way. Quantum physicist Neils Bohr said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” We have collectively struggled to find language that describes the strange reality of quantum physics. One astronomer said “the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.: Having grown up in a world of machines, we have a hard time figuring out what a thought looks like.”

We’re amazed by possibilities of social media and social business, of re-humanizing businesses. Yet we, too, struggle with language to describe the future of management. And it may take decades for these ideas to evolve and for us to implement them well.

Applying the ideas in “Humanize” is a great first step.

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About John Stepper

Driving adoption of collaboration and social media platforms at Deutsche Bank. (Opinions here are my own.)
This entry was posted in Management, Social Business and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A really, really big idea

  1. Wall Street Knowledge says:

    I think the problem with management is people. In my office there are some small group of people who don’t “work” — literally they are on Facebook or Cell phones or take too many coffee breaks or smoke breaks. They are talked to reprimanded by management, but management has other things to do and can’t babysit so they regress. They should probably be let go, but the training curve is so severe that management is loath to do that, esp when the non-workers are actually nice people, despite their lack of learning/working/commitment. Of course there are those who do work, and they make money,- it comes down to internal motivation, and desire to learn / make money.

    This is not true on Wall Street where people are “organized” with bosses and managers who watch over them, plus in Technology the people are motivated by their immigrant culture and internal values that got them to the US in the first place. Plus, if you have a group of people who are inspired by their management (I know of groups on Wall Street where this is true) and like each other’s company and are on a “team” and the manager makes strategic decisions for them then the group works well and the manager actually frees the developers and team leads to work (which they prefer and have told me because they really like coding and don’t like going to meetings, so their manager does that for them – and he has to fill out endless forms for the corporate over-lords/ so he hired a BA to do most of that for him) – this group works.

    But the big problem in Wall Street (and it’s understandable really) is that the hierarchy where the MDs can’t possibly know the nitty-gritty of day to day stuff so they have to hire really smart people to report to them and manage all the other people — the problem is there isn’t enough smart people. If you’re talking about humanism — the problem is the volume of work and the lack of enough really smart people to manage projects (like the above manager who is above average and rather rare) – there are a lot of below average bosses.. But when you’re the MD it’s hard to tell who is who when hiring. (and sometimes the Directors who report to you are inherited or thrust upon you by the biz side who is after all paying the bills) so…the problem is actually “people” (very few who are ever trained in “managing people”) And 50% of people are below average.

  2. Excellent post John! Of course, I agree with your points. I’m going to have to add Humanize to my reading list. I’ll also make a reading suggestion for you that’s a continuation of this theme but applies it not just to management but to the very economics our current system is based on (also rooted in the industrial age). Check out Betterness by Umair Haque (http://www.amazon.com/Betterness-Economics-Humans-Kindle-ebook/dp/B006K5K5GI/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326686899&sr=1-1)

    It’s a short 66 page book, really more like an essay, and it talks about how our whole thinking behind economics and what’s considered a successful business needs to change in order for society to improve. It kind of takes the macro view of the type of change social business seeks.

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