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Why Managers Now Need To Become Leaders

2014 March 23

Around the turn 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced the practice of scientific management.  He studied various tasks with a stopwatch, devised more efficient ways of getting them done and developed standards to improve productivity.

In Taylor’s world, there was truly a “right way” and a “wrong way” of doing things and managers were there to supervise.  They ensured that rules were being followed, standards for work were being met and discipline was being enforced.

The rise of the knowledge economy brought a different kind of management.  Instead of supervising, managers had to excel at choosing the right kind of work to be done and motivating employees.  Now, as the information economy takes hold and creates pervasive change, managers will have to evolve once again.  Those who don’t adapt, will not survive.

The Age Of Organization

Generally, I’m not a fan of fast food.  It’s not that I’m a health nut, but I try to avoid greasy, unhealthy food when I can.  Nevertheless, when I first arrived arrived in Poland in 1997, I found myself going to places like McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC a lot.  It wasn’t that I didn’t try local restaurants, but the fast food chains were often a better choice.

Poland at the time was an emerging economy, just recovering from 50 years of communist rule and restaurants were relatively new and unregulated.  While I discovered some interesting new dishes, I also got food poisoning with alarming frequency.  At the fast food joints, I knew that there were consistent standards for taste and quality.

That, in essence, was what the Industrial Revolution was about.  It didn’t inspire genius, but it protected you from idiots and delivered a decent product at a low price.  I didn’t expect the cook at the local McDonalds to be a talented chef, but I could be confident that he was following procedures that were implemented worldwide.

That took an enormous amount of organization and corporations became quite good at it. Management techniques like Six Sigma and Total Quality Management ensured that variation would be kept to a minimum.  Every aspect of the process was supervised and tightly controlled.

The Rise of The Wise

President George W. Bush considered himself a “decider.”  He did not profess to know every detail of every aspect in his organization, but believed that his instincts, judgment and sense of the overall picture made him a capable leader.  In the knowledge economy, a good manager was a good strategist.

A successful entrepreneur I know works in much the same way.  He doesn’t pride himself on his skills—in fact he doesn’t even use Excel or PowerPoint—but on his ability to see opportunities and put the right resources in the right place.  Each good decision he makes will be leveraged across the efficient organization he built for the industrial age.

Of course, the opposite is also true.  While being right creates prosperity, being wrong can bring ruin.  The same qualities of efficiency and standardization go in reverse, multiplying mistakes made at the top all the way down the line.  That’s why managers of the past prided themselves on being risk takers.  Every decision had a consequence.

Yet in today’s semantic economy, those risks have become untenable.  We should no longer focus on being right, but on being less wrong over time.  The organization itself must learn to adapt.

Rewiring The Software In Our Organizations

In The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describe how electricity required organizations to change.  In the steam age, factories needed to be organized so that the machines were near the power source and work was centered around them.  The first electric factories were set up the same way.

Yet it was only when managers realized that was no longer necessary that the true potential of the new technology was unleashed.  By capitalizing on electricity’s ability to distribute power, factories could be designed around workflow, doubling or even tripling productivity.  Unfortunately, this took 20 or 30 years to realize.

Today, we are several decades into a similar technological transformation.  Computers, original designed to do rote tasks, are now doing cognitive ones.  Yet, our enterprises are still set up for the earlier era of standardization and efficiency.  While our technology has evolved, our organizations still look very much the same.

Clearly, if we are to compete for the future, we need to change the software of our enterprises.  In a recent post, Aaron Dignan of Undercurrent describes three new approaches, including holacracy, agile squads and self organizing.  Surely there will be more to come.  It’s still early days.

The Mission Based Enterprise

In the old era of organizations, managers marshalled resources.  They needed to ensure that the enterprise had the right assets and the right skills in order to accomplish specific objectives.  Acquiring resources required significant investments, so managers needed to make good decisions and manage risk.

Yet open technology has made that approach a thing of the past.  Today, it doesn’t really matter what resources you own, but what you can access.  And today, everything from supercomputing to finance, marketing to production can be found in the cloud, very cheaply and on-demand.

We’re also entering a new era of talent, where you need to not only hire capable employees, but also leverage strategic partners, academic institutions and contract workers.  In effect, every enterprise needs to become an open platform for collaboration.

So successful managers today are no longer supervisors, nor are they deciders, but formulators of strategic intent and their function is not one of the enterprise’s operation—most of which is rapidly being automated—but its purpose.  It’s is no longer enough to organize work, we must facilitate belief.

– Greg

3 Responses leave one →
  1. March 23, 2014

    Greg .. we are so often thinking alike.

    “we must facilitate belief”

    I’m trying to work up a view of management – having trouble articulating it at the moment but it is all based around human effects – facilitating belief.

    It goes something like this:

    People are complex and organisations of people are even more complex.
    Management is simple.
    There is little real overlap between the actions of management and their effect.

    A witch doctor performs rituals (like a rain dance) to control the weather and bring about rain. There is no connection between the ritual and the weather except in people’s minds. The power of the witch doctor is rests with his people skills – convincing people on the effectiveness of the ritual – correlating any rain with the performance of the ritual and taking credit for the rain – any lack of rain being due to a problem in people’s belief or a fault in the ritual.

    Imagine an organisation as the weather and a manager as a witch doctor.

    Good management operates through a set of placebo effects – it is people skills that bring about success.

  2. March 23, 2014

    Interesting point Martin. However, I’m not sure that “placebo effects” is the right term. Good leaders create a sense of mission and direction, thereby helping to focus action.

    – Greg

  3. March 24, 2014


    Good leaders create a sense of mission and direction – thus bringing out the best in people.

    It is very similar to the placebo effect – the belief in the pill which uses the person’s own capability to cure themselves – the greater the belief the greater the effect. Its a bit like those effects in medicine where successful outcomes are associated with psychological effects rather than treatment differences (Doctor wears a white coat, Doctor has high reputation, Doctor has good bedside manner, Doctore charges more). All these things are about generating belief.

    What I am forgetting however is that there are an awful lot of robot like people (jobsworths) those who are quite happy to be programmed like drones – those for which belief has no effect – those who only operate at the level of ritual.

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