Simon Terry

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Break the Management Spiral

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Some days I wonder how much of what we call management theory is piling on new practices to treat the symptoms of the last practice we implemented. Let’s break the management spiral.

The Management Spiral

Let’s assume we are a traditional organisation run in line with prevailing management practices.  Here’s one example of what we might experience:

  • We hire to match fixed definitions of expertise and because we don’t help our people to learn & adapt so we don’t trust them to deliver alone. 
  • Because we don’t trust our employees to be able to work unguided, we have a strict processes & policies. 
  • The policies and processes don’t cover all situations or all decisions, so we have hierarchy to lead, sort issues & coordinate. 
  • Our hierarchy doesn’t do that work because human nature means hierarchical leaders become invested in their power and expertise which disengages people, so we run a complicated scheme of performance management and incentives. 
  • The performance system isn’t perfect and worsens performance by creating conflict, waste and misalignment so we need to resort to layoffs, restructures, outsourcing and automation in an effort to restore performance. 
  • Now that we are letting expert people go, it’s clear that we can’t trust anyone and there’s no point investing in people so we are back at the beginning again and need better compliance with policies and process, more effective hierarchy and a new performance management system.

This is a simple linear story.  Even small organisations are far more complex than this example with interplay between each of these factors and a range of personal, political and human issues influencing performance. For example, there’s a reason engagement is low across many industries and countries as every one of the bullets above affects engagement.

We can’t go on adding bandaids to the symptoms of our previous management practices.

Breaking the Spiral

To break this spiral we need to change two key elements of the modern management paradigm:

  • From knowing to learning: Expertise won’t cut it anymore. We need to embrace the pace of knowledge in a connected economy and focus on flows of knowledge, not stocks. Organisations need to ensure that they have Big Learning, where every role is building capability and contributing to the potential of the organisation. It also means means change & growth is inherent in every role and each role has a responsibility to fix, to improve and to share. 
  • From controlling to enabling: If the world is dynamic, we can’t specify in advance. We can’t dictate the process at the detail required. We can’t anticipate every customer need or every community demand. We need to focus instead on enabling the person best placed to make the call and realising value through enabling those outside the organisation. We need to manage to realise and enable our collective potential, the potential of employees, customers and community. 

These two concepts seem to be at the heart of many of the new practices developed to help enhance the future of work. Let’s hope better practices will help us to better manage the system and break the spiral.


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