1. The Fortune 500 was created in 1955; since then, you can argue that the business environment is six times more competitive + complex than it was.
2. As the complexity of a business has increased, most management philosophy still comes from 1911 (pre-WWI) and 1924 (the alternating “hard” and “soft” views of management). Different models have cropped up over time, including stuff like what Zappos is doing right now, but by and large, we see this situation playing out in many workplaces:
As they have responded to each new challenge, managers (as Taylor recommended) have introduced new structures, processes and systems. When this happens year after year, there is a damaging accretion of structural fixes — we estimate that the number of these has grown by a factor of thirty-five over the past 55 years. The consequence is what we call “complicatedness,” which spells trouble for a company’s productivity and leads employees to feel frustrated and to disengage. In the most complicated 20% of companies, employees spend large chunks of time on aimless activities that do not add value: For instance, writing reports or participating in internal meetings that have no impact.
3. Most managerial hires aren’t that great.
4. We seem now to have a problem.
Can we do anything about it? We can, although it’s hard and it requires an actual, deep look at your organization — where’s the value-add? What are your people’s strengths and weaknesses? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are customers/clients saying? How much money do we have, and how much do we want? Essentially, context. The HBR article proposes six rules, essentially. They’re very simple, but they can help an organization grow and succeed:
- Understand what your people do: Start with a true understanding of what your people do and why they do it.
- Reinforce integrators: Foster cooperation by giving people the power and interest to do so.
- Increase the total quantity of power: Create new power, don’t just shift existing power.
- Increase reciprocity: Ensure people use their autonomy.
- Extend the shadow of the future: Create direct feedback loops.
- Reward those who cooperate: Make transparency, innovation, and aspiration the best choices for individuals and teams.
This all seems to make sense. I’m no management consultant or anything, but from experiences I’ve had, all these things would be helpful in a work sense. I really dislike it when managers ask me, “What are you working on?” or “What are you doing?” I know that managers shouldn’t know every second of your life — that would be bad for a whole host of other reasons — but when it seems like they have no real idea what someone that reports into them is doing with their time, that seems odd. I think most managers fear getting too deep with an employee because of the “can’t be friends” thing, but it can help, as most people respond to relationships they value — ones with empathy involved — with a higher work ethic. Direct feedback loops is a whole ‘nother thing; companies need to find their own safe space on evaluating the work of their employees — and having the evaluations mean something. Transparency and innovation can seem like buzzwords, but if you empower them to be important, they will be. I think the overall idea here is kind of “manage adults as if they’re adults,” which seems to be what successful companies do. Adults being managed as children need to be managed, while it can often feel like that’s the right idea, ultimately is kind of a flop.
The great irony of management practice, ultimately, is that as things get more complex, your management style should probably actually become simpler.