I wrote not so long ago about a ridiculous HBR article defending traditional management with the title, Stop Trying to Delight Your Clients.
Now in the same vein is a remarkable new defense of traditional management in Bloomberg BusinessWeek: Patrick Lencioni’s article entitled, “Why Companies Need Less Innovation.”
According to Lencioni, most of the people working in an organization should just do their job with enthusiasm and consistency. Leaders have to realize that only a limited number of people in any company really need to be innovative. These are the few people at the top, who call the shots and define what products and services should be delivered.
The movie set
“Think about a movie set,” writes Lencioni. “For every writer or director or actor on the payroll, there are hordes of people who have to be technically proficient, consistent, patient, and disciplined in their responsibilities. If they innovate, the project turns to chaos.”
Apparently, Lencioni hasn’t studied successful movie companies like Pixar, where daily meetings are held in which everyone is encouraged to make suggestions. Read for example Ed Catmull’s article, How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity (HBR, September 2008). The guy at the top is brilliant, but the emphasis is still on collective creativity.
Similarly, according to Lencioni, the most creative restaurant “requires the work of a single chef to design a fabulous menu, and dozens of cooks and waitresses and waiters and dishwashers who will do their jobs with commitment, consistency, and dutifulness. If the cooks innovate, consistency is gone and customers can't rely on what they're going to get.” Has Lencioni never studied those restaurants where the whole staff are encouraged to deliver consistent performance and make creative contributions, like the Inn at Little Washington. Read for example, Taking the Measure of Mood by Patrick O’Connell (HBR, March 2006)
The Surgical Team
The consequences were of Lencioni’s traditional top-down management approach to innovation were graphically described by Atul Gawande in his wonderful book, Complications , (pp. 29–30) when he wrote about two different leaders approached the introduction of a new surgical technique. One was a fast-learning team and the other was slow-learning. A study was conducted to find out why.
The surgeon on the fast-learning team was actually quite inexperienced compared with the one on the slow-learning team—he was only a couple of years out of training. But he made sure to pick team members with whom he had worked well before and to keep them together through the first fifteen cases before allowing any new members. He had the team go through a dry run before the first case, then deliberately scheduled six operations in the first week, so little would be forgotten in between. He convened the team before each case to discuss it in detail and afterward to debrief. He made sure results were tracked carefully. And as a person, Bohmer noted, the surgeon was not the stereotypical Napoleon with a knife. Unbidden, he told Bohmer, “The surgeon needs to be willing to allow himself to become a partner [with the rest of the team] so he can accept input.” . . .
At the other hospital, the surgeon chose his operating team almost randomly and did not keep it together. In his first seven cases the team had different members every time, which is to say that it was no team at all. And he had no pre-briefings, no debriefings, no tracking of ongoing results.
Whereas the poorly performing team was the top-down leader who is “sometimes wrong but never in doubt,” the team that did well benefited from the ideas of all the people on the team. Collective innovation is what did the trick.
The automobile manufacturer
Those who think that collective innovation is limited to knowledge work might want to peruse Matthew May’s wonderful book, The Elegant Solution: Toyota's Formula for Mastering Innovation. Toyota implements around a million innovations a year. Very few of these come from the top. Everyone in the organization including factory workers on the line are continually looking for ways to do better.
Lencioni: Innovation is for the few
Lencioni will have none of this. Innovation in an organization is for few, in particular for the leadership team at the top. They are the people with the brains. They are “responsible for determining the boundaries of change that are acceptable and, perhaps most important of all, identifying the handful of others within their departments who have the invitation and freedom to innovate.”
For the multitudes of middle managers and their lower level munchkins, they should focus on something he calls “creatonomy”, which means that employees are meant to take responsibility for their work and above all be enthusiastic about it. “Sure, they're encouraged to share their ideas about new ways to work, but most of what they are known for is being great at what has already been defined as the product or service that their company offers.”
The message of creatonomy is straight from Dilbert-cartoon style management. Do what you’re told but be enthusiastic about it. Do your jobs and don’t ask too many questions. Make a suggestion if you must, but don’t expect many suggestions to be taken seriously: that’s the job of those the top. Get on with your job as defined and, above all, put on a happy face. Keep those customers happy!
This is the world of traditional management where only one in five workers is fully engaged in their work, the rate of return on assets is one quarter of what it was in 1965, and the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 is down to 15 years, and heading towards 5 years.
If you’re happy with that, as Lencioni and the “most leaders he knows” seem to be, then fine. Forget innovation. Continue with your Dilbert-cartoon-style management. Join the ranks of traditional organizations heading for an early demise.
On the other
hand, if you are tired of this medieval medicine and want to have a bright future and to be like Pixar, The Inn At Little Washington, Gawande’s winning
surgical team or Toyota, then learn more about radical management here: