When we peruse the business books in any bookstore, one thing leaps out at us: most of these books are suggesting, misleadingly, that a single management fix will save us from the dire management problems that we now face.
- Being driven by “purpose” or being “strategic” will save us, by becoming more “client focused”, or by "marketing".
- No, sorry, marketing is the problem: it's “un-marketing” will save us.
- “Intrinsic motivation” or “empowerment” will create energized employees and thus save us.
- Or giving employees more “freedom” and “autonomy” will save us.
- Or on the contrary, maybe there has been too much freedom, autonomy and empowerment. Instead better “execution” or “playing hardball” or “ruthless management” will save us.
- Or maybe we need to see that it's “leadership” that will save us, or “servant leadership”, or “strengths-based leadership”, or “primal leadership”, or “principle-centered leadership”, or “total leadership”, or “tribal leadership,” or “transforming leadership” or “fierce leadership”?
- No? Then could “corporate responsibility” save us?
- If not, then surely better “talent management” or becoming a "learning organization" will do.
- “Wikinomics” is going to “change everything”, so it will surely save us. If not, there's always “freakenomics” or “superfreakenomics”.
- If that doesn’t work, then new technology “platforms” will surely save us, along with “social media”.
- Then again, some think “knowledge management” will help us learn.
- While software developers often imagine that “Agile” will make us nimble.
- While some even think that “storytelling” alone might save us.
And so on.
In reality, none of these single-fix solutions will “save us”. None of them will address the complex array of problems that management now faces. In fairness, some of these authors never said that their idea would solve all those problems. But the book is often presented in such a way that we are definitely left with that impression.
THE EFFECT OF THE SINGLE MANAGEMENT FIX
What is clear is that each of these books focuses on a particular facet of management. Each of these ideas represents a tool that, with some exceptions, can be used to improve management and if used intelligently, should have some positive effect. But none of these tools is individually powerful or comprehensive enough to resolve the profound and pervasive management problems that we face today.
Indeed, when one of these tools is pursued within the framework of goals, attitudes, values and assumptions of traditional management, it may not lead to any improvement at all. Like business process re-engineering, which was launched as something fundamentally new, it ends up being “more of the same” under a different label, and thus becomes counter-productive, by preventing other, more worthwhile change.
By contrast, if the single management fix is pursued within a truly different framework of goals, attitudes, values and assumptions, as some of these authors do indeed suggest, then the initiative may begin to create a truly different dynamic within the organization, and it can be successful for a period. But as the initiative grows in size and importance, it attracts the attention of the powers that be—the traditional managers who view the new initiative as a dangerous virus that needs to be sidelined, scaled down, or simply eliminated. And so the once-promising initiative fails to have lasting benefit. This has happened many times in knowledge management, in lean manufacturing, in agile software development, in marketing and elsewhere.
What becomes apparent from this familiar sequence is that the fundamental management problem isn’t the problem being addressed by this or that single management fix. It’s rather the whole array of goals, attitudes, values and assumptions that drive traditional management to act the way it acts in most established organizations today. Unless and until something is done about those basic goals, attitudes, values and assumptions, no single management fix will stick.
THE NEED FOR A COMPREHENSIVE RETHINK OF MANAGEMENT
This is why thoughtful business leaders and writers are increasingly going beyond single-fix solutions and exploring a fundamental rethinking of the basic tenets of management. The best of current thinking offers a coherent conceptual framework which enables us to see both why what is now being practiced has become so ineffective and even counter-productive, and what it would take to resolve those problems.
To synthesize this more comprehensive thinking, it entails five fundamental and interdependent shifts in management practice:
1. The first shift stems from a monumental transition in the power balance from seller to buyer: to management's astonishment, the buyer is now in the driver’s seat. As a result, the firm’s goal has to shift to one of delighting clients: i.e. a shift from inside-out (“You take what we make”) to outside-in (“We seek to understand your problems and will surprise you by solving them”).
2. The second shift stems from the first transition, as well as the epochal transition from semi-skilled labor to knowledge work. Again to management's astonishment, traditional hierarchy suddenly doesn’t work any more. The role of the manager has to shift from being a controller to an enabler, so as to liberate the energies and talents of those doing the work and remove impediments that are getting in the way of work.
To support and sustain those two shifts, three other shifts are necessary:
3. The mode of coordination shifts from hierarchical bureaucracy to dynamic linking, i.e. to a way of dynamically linking self-driven knowledge work to the shifting requirements of delighting clients.
4. There is a parallel shift from value to values; i.e. a shift from a single-minded focus on economic value and maximizing efficiency to instilling the values that will create innovation and growth for the organization over the long term.
5. Communications also have to shift from command to conversation: i.e. a shift from top-down communications comprising predominantly hierarchical directives to communications made up largely of adult-to-adult conversations that solve problems and generate new insights.
Individually, none of these shifts is new. However what has been learned in recent years is that when one of these shifts is pursued on its own, without the others, it tends to be unsustainable because it conflicts with the goals, attitudes and practices of traditional management. The five shifts are interdependent.
Implementing the five shifts simultaneously is a strenuous agenda but offers significant benefits. When well executed, it generates simultaneously high productivity, continuous innovation, disciplined execution, job satisfaction and client delight.
To learn more about how the fundamental goals, attitudes, values of management are being reinvented, read The Death—And Reinvention—of Management Part 1, or books like The Power of Pull by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, or Reorganize for Resilience by Ranjay Gulati or my own book, The Leader's Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century.