Memo to ‘Top Management’ – Subject: Engine Technology

I’ve just been searching for a post that is hugely relevant to a recent conversation, and have found that it was an old piece that didn’t get published onto this blog…so here it is:

Jet engine“Management thinking affects business performance just as an engine affects the performance of an aircraft. Internal combustion and jet propulsion are two technologies for converting fuel into power to drive an aircraft.

New recipes for internal combustion can improve the performance of a propeller-driven airplane, but jet propulsion technology raises total performance to levels that internal combustion cannot achieve. So it is with management thinking.

Competitive businesses require jet (even rocket!) management principles. Unfortunately, internal combustion principles still power almost all management thinking.” (H. Thomas Johnson)

And so Johnson nicely compares and contrasts the decades old ‘command and control’ management system with a new ‘systems thinking’ way.

Let’s take incentives as an important example:

You report to a manager, who reports to a manager, who…etc. You have ‘negotiated’ some cascaded objectives and you will be rated and then rewarded on your ‘performance’ in meeting them. Sound familiar?

Here are the fundamental problems with this arrangement:

  • Obey and justifyYou will tell your manager what you think he/she wants to hear, and provide tailored evidence that supports this, whilst suppressing that which does not;

  • If you are ‘brave’ and tell your manager something that they might not like, you will do so very very carefully, like ‘walking on eggshells’…and, in so doing, likely de-power (i.e. remove the necessary clout from) the message;

  • You realise that it’s virtually suicidal to ‘go above them’ and tell your manager’s manager the ‘brave’ thing that they should hear…because you fear (with good reason) that this will most likely ‘come back to bite you’ at your judgement time (when the carrots are being handed out);

  • You are locked into a hierarchy that is reliant on a game of ‘Chinese whispers’ up the chain of command, with each whisperer finessing (or blocking) the message to assist in the rating of their own individual performance;

  • Each layer of management is shielded (by their own mechanism) from hearing the raw truth and, as such, they engineer that they ‘hear what they like, and like what they hear’.

…and therefore this system, whilst fully functioning, is perpetually impotent! It has disabled itself from finding out what it really needs to know.

“Hierarchies don’t like bad news…. bad news does not travel easily up organisations” (John Seddon)

If you’ve been in such a system and HAVE broken one of the rules above through your passion to make a real difference for the good of the organisation you work for (or perhaps worked!), then you’ve probably got some scars to show for it.

If you’ve always played it safe, then this is probably because you’ve seen what happens to the others!

The ‘Bottom line’ for ‘Top Management’:

If you want to transform your organisation, change ‘engine technology’! Tinkering with your existing one is simply not going to work.

  • Managers should not be rating the performance of individuals. Rather, they should understand what the system is preventing the individual from achieving…and then work with them to change that system to release their untapped potential;

  • Managers should not be incentivising individuals to comply. Rather, they should be sharing the success of the organisation with them. (These are very different things!)

Neither of these fundamental changes is in the gift of ‘middle management’ – they belong to those that determine the management system.

… and so, if (and this is a big ‘if’) ‘top management’ want to know the raw truth (‘warts and all’) they must constantly remove, and guard against, system conditions (e.g. incentives, performance ratings) that would prevent the truth from easily and quickly becoming lucid and transparent.

Afterthought, to counter a likely retort from ‘Top management’:

I have often (professionally) provided well intended feedback to ‘management’ as to what’s actually ‘happening out there’, particularly when I believe that they may not be aware of this. Many an Executive has derived great worth from this feedback (and thanked me accordingly).

This isn’t saying that I’m always right, or that I know everything. Obviously I’m not, and I don’t. But I do know what I see and hear.

However, there has been a subset of deeply command-and-control executives that confidently respond with “no Steve, you are wrong – that’s not the case at all. My people tell me exactly what’s happening…and there’s no problem here”.

I find this interesting (sometimes amusing, but mostly disappointing).

A manager can never be sure that people are being totally open and honest with them…but they can constantly look for, and understand, what mechanisms and practices would put this desired feedback in doubt or at risk….and then tirelessly work to remove these system conditions, for the good of all.

Footnote: I wrote this post before I wrote ‘Your Money or your Life!’…which considers the question as to whether ‘Top management’ in large corporates CAN change.

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