Defocus hierarchies and empowering the self and teams
“While we are one of the most fortunate generations in human history plush with both knowledge and wisdom, probably we are also quite unfortunate. We have always learnt and been taught to value artificial over natural.”
I have been closely observing the working adults for close to 25 years now – and I would consider myself fortunate to experience, as diverse settings as military, government, private sector, not-for-profit et al, and in diverse global geographies. I experienced numerous managers, management consultants, process experts, technology professionals, with a single-minded focus on measuring, analyzing and enhancing productivity, repeatability and sustainability – in the process creating more work, than is actually required to do something. I always found the artificiality, self-defeating. More work created to monitor work, that in reality, is quite straightforward and in management language – “people (read individual contributors) can perform without even applying their brain”. That is how we have been so effective at creating hierarchies – from foot soldiers, right up till the war room generals. We replicated that in industry and gave people fancy titles.
The other day, I was in conversation with an accomplished manager in one of the most accomplished organizations. And as we discussed concerns on the evolving pandemic situation, he went at length explaining the challenges, the organization was facing. How, “strategic leaders” must work keeping current situation in mind, analyzing the market scenario, “strategizing and thinking”. On the other hand, the workforce just needs to “execute without applying their minds,” And the mid-management should act as that bridge, “commanding the executing workforce and understand the strategy to align ourselves”. Nothing wrong with the argument apparently – but it is so unfortunate. It assumes most people are incapable of thinking, those on top are incapacitated to execute and the mid-management is a gatekeeper of sorts.
Such a thinking is so artificial. The best of Generals will rely on the thinking capability and agility of their workforce on the ground in a situation of war. They should know the rules of engagement and act with relatively high degree of autonomy to reign in the adversary. The commanders in the mid cadres are excellent doers, coaches, and motivators who themselves participate on the battleground. Imagine a soccer playing XI, where the captain wants to sit on the side.
The science and the natural principle are simple and yet hierarchical workplaces are so distant from it. Every human agency has capacity to think and act. The Taylorian scientific management made the enterprise so artificial and non-human. A few years back, I happened to work with a large client, where the CEO, a highly learned man, said, “You know our Performance Management System is one of the best. We have elaborately cascaded KPI’s from a dictionary of more than 10,000 KPI’s. Our managers spend more than 20,000 manhours collectively in setting and reviewing goals based on our annual plan. Most of our employees meet their performance goals and do get their incentives. There is only one problem – company has been seeing dipping margins and profits over years. Somehow, the individual performance is not leading to the business success.” Well to me and that is what I advised, those libraries and 20,000 manhours are an effort in near total waste. This managerial task of reviewing and setting goals is one of the most non-value adding tasks we have added to organizational management. A manager’s limited judgment powered by middle management anxieties, have caused more damage to organizations then any good.
Humans can judge, they have the capability to align their effort with that of the collective – so far as the rules of the game are simple, agreed and mutual accountabilities are clear. Moving to a more human-centric design – one would observe that this work will happen in a team more naturally then in a hierarchy. That is what was the organizing principle of both markets and artisans before the scientific revolution. Artisans produced, maintained quality – were their own individual agency, organized in gangs of experts and apprentices, till greed and mass production took over and gave way to the third industrial revolution. Making few people “’intelligent” with capacity to think, wealthy and most others robotic – devoid of thinking. Education, which also became a business, was too willing to comply and played such a big role in “educating” so many generations. And successive generations believing in hierarchical management as the only structure.
It has been quite unfortunate – for one, decisions are taken far away from real action. In the course of my work, I happened to meet an industrialist – and we happened to talk about the fact, that his factory is actually a cause of pollution, as untreated effluents were being released in a local river. Of course, immediate action was taken. There was a minimal investment. But it never captured the attention of this individual, in the mire of hierarchies that were laden in the organization, from supervisor to manager to his manager and so on, all the way up to a COO who himself was more focused on the evening production rather than the human crisis and for right reasons – since his boss looks at an evening dispatch and cash report. Secondly, a lot of industry completed disconnected from the consumer. People are producing products, that are actually making their customers sick. I am sure this misfortune may be reversed, if only we humanize and make people who do also responsible for the decisions.
In recent history, we, fortunately are also the generation that has the most opportunity – to bring back the human agency and dissolve the structures, we are so used to working in. There is a lot we can do, as professionals, entrepreneurs, and industrialists. There is a set of three actions that one can take today to bring back humanness back into the organization:
- Elevate the Self: Unleash the self in every human. No one is a robot and most possess human values. They will work for personal good and good of others. Do not make them compete, that is the science – raise their sense of self by making things meaningful. Let individual take the accountability for own work, and not a manager.
- Elevate the Team: Unleash the tribe in every group. Tribe is a natural formation, there will be leaders, but the leader is one amongst equals. Leader is chosen by the tribe, not thrust upon them. Make the tribe collaborate, and make the resources available to the degree, your organization may afford. Be assured, your resources will be most beautifully and optimally utilized. Let team optimize resources, not a budgeting and rationing manager.
- Elevate the Information Symmetry: Unleash knowledge symmetrically. Make all information available to all, and always, pertaining to the business and work on hand. Let the team self-organize and self-govern to access and act on the information, to the best interest of their stakeholders, the customers.
You may run great, large, and successful organizations without many rules. A few are required, like in a football field which are the rules of the game. Ricardo Semler has been advocating that for 35 years, much before the advent of the current digital age. Organizations actually must be very careful. They must not turn the digital tools into managerial monitoring tools, but tools for autonomy and providing more and more space to an “individual thinker”. We must move away from this “individual contributor” paradigm as quickly as we can – and adopt the “individual thinker” mindset enabled by the tribes, teams and right knowledge.
I see a lot of light, going forward on this – meeting a new age entrepreneur a few years back, he presented an exciting insight. He conducted a study in his organization of 700 people on the cost of keeping the attendance and maintaining leaves. The result was, it was costlier to manage attendance and leaves rather than providing autonomy to people to manage it on their own.
There would be endless studies on these paradigms and there have been some great minds at work in the field. Frederick Laloux’s outlines some of the best insights on Holacracy and the rising consciousness leading to reshaping the organizations around us. Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci for the last 40 years have developed the science of self-determination and there are numerous treatises on visualizing the new organization. Dan Pink, in his drive talks about the purpose, autonomy and mastery that drives and shapes human behavior. In their recent book, Humanocracy, Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini have beautifully captured the whole landscape of changes, case studies and examples that can help us re-think bureaucracy. Essentially self and self-managed teams is an idea whose time has come.
As you read this, and as an industry leader or an entrepreneur, or a professional, think of those hundreds of people who were merely wrote off as an attrition in your organization with also a reason for attrition well-assigned to those individuals. HR function in your organization, would also have spent a lot of time analyzing the attrition data. But as you reflect, you may realize, you had a handful of them who had the capability to course change your organization, but for the hierarchy, “manageocracy” in your organization they left. Recently working with a large firm, which was setting up processes for high-potential identification in their organization, we were working on the “process” of identifying the high potential and put them in succession roles. That, when they have already spent 10-15-20 years in the organizations. The only argument, I had – find them in the first three months of their coming into the organization and give them asymmetric responsibilities and opportunities to work on teams, solving crucial problems. And observe them add value, but for that you may have to shatter the layers and processes of management, that have been created – to identify and place high potential talent into “well-thought out roles”.