The right tool for the job?

19 Feb 2018 | LinkedIn article

Growing up outside Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) in the 1970s, we had a 1960s era Sears circular saw around the house. I discovered the saw in the workbench in the basement as a teenager. It ran so loud it was shocking. The spinning blade was menacing. But it was so much faster than our handsaw and over the years I used that saw for different types of projects: building a ramp for my bicycle, cutting 2x4s for a tree house, building a little room for the basement water pump.

As I used the old saw more, its loud shriek became less startling. Over time I began to understand it better, so it felt less dangerous to have the sharp blade spinning an inch from my fingers. I started to find ways that the saw could be used for jobs it was not meant for. Once I needed to make a ‘channel’ in a plank of wood. Today, as a more experienced woodworker, I know I should have used a router. But I didn’t have a router; at the time I didn’t know it existed. I found that if I set the blade very shallow on my trusty circular saw, I could make the blade just skim the wood with a superficial cut. This meant that I could use the circular saw to create channels in a plank of wood. This put some ‘unnatural’ pressure on the blade because my channel was not straight. The friction and heat were probably not good for the saw and not safe for me. But I got it to work.

Once, for a panelling job, I needed to make a curved cut. The panelling was only about half-inch thick, so I tried to follow a curved line with the saw but it kept jamming and ‘kicking back.’ So dangerous and so much whining and friction, but it was the tool I was used to! Finally, I did some research and learned about a jigsaw – the right tool for a curved cut, when you need some agility and things are not linear.

Management is another type of tool. We humans invented scientific management during the industrial revolution for scaling up organisations. Management gives organisations a method of directing and controlling tens of thousands of employees’ behaviours toward certain outcomes.

At its core, scientific management is very individual-oriented, and very fixed role-based. The production process is broken up into tiny tasks and each tasks is made for an individual to perform, again and again and again. The person (and not the team) is the focus, so we hire individuals into a fixed, defined role to do a specific task, so that they became very efficient at that fixed role. We invented measures and metrics to make sure that the individual performed the prescribed, fixed set of tasks very efficiently. If that individual was not fast enough at the task, or made errors, managers would take away their money, and eventually replace them with another individual.

The point is that modern management – the methods of hiring, performance evaluation, and reward schemes – was built to focus individuals on performing pre-specified tasks. It was what the tool was designed for.

In the last few decades, there seems to be increasing levels of environmental change. For example, organizations will perish unless they adapt to blockchain, self-driving transportation, 3D printing and machine learning. Organisations need to be innovative, flexible, and agile to survive.

Now that the lines to organisational relevance are less linear, many leaders are aware that we need a new management tool. Leaders today need more employee engagement and creativity than the traditional management produces. Top-down, individual-oriented, fixed-role management is creating a lot of friction and is not making the cut.

Like the jigsaw, many leaders can see how a bottom-up, team-oriented, project-based flexible approach is a better tool for the job. The concepts of ‘self managing teams’, ‘playing to strengths’, ‘experimentation’ and ‘job crafting’ sound like a better fit to the needs of managers today. But many pull back before they develop competence with flexible management approaches. They ask good, practical questions when they learn that all the wrinkles have not yet been ironed out:

  • How do I know how much to pay people if their jobs are always evolving and if different people in the same job craft it in different ways?
  • How do I make sure ‘playing to strengths’ results in people making the necessary types of contributions to the team?
  • How do I reward experimentation when many of the experiments fail and do not produce positive results?
  • If teams are self managing, what is my job as a manager if I give up my authority?

When we start focusing on these ‘little issues’, there is a tendency for managers to default back to the old tool of traditional management because it feels comfortable. So far, we have found a way to stretch the old approach so that it almost works. We end up back with the wrong tool for the job – limping along, getting in the way, causing friction – rather than ironing out the details on the right tool for the job.

Let’s take a moment to admit – to remember! – that our traditional management tool never was perfect. Even during the Industrial Revolution. For example:

  • Even if an individual is willing to perform repetitive tasks that do not leverage her unique strengths, it doesn’t mean that we are getting her best contributions or her creative innovations that help the organization adapt
  • Even if we pretend that an organisation’s products can be traced back to certain functions (say, sales, or R&D) or certain team members, this means we forget the rest of the team who created the platform for that function or that individual to succeed.
  • Even if we pay two individuals on the same team different amounts based on our measures of their contributions, these individuals often do not feel motivated by those differences, or think that the pay differences are meaningful or fair. The vast majority of employees are disengaged from their work.

Here’s a mental hack: pretend we were inventing management for the first time now, with the rate of change and innovation we are experiencing today. Would we think that the individual-based fixed-role approach is the right tool for the job? My guess is that if we were first setting up traditional management today, there would be many places where it glaringly ‘wouldn’t work.’

  • If I try to make a person do the same thing again and again, they obviously will get bored with it, and we all know that bored people don’t bring their best creativity and innovation to the task. I could try to squeeze a ‘personal development’ criteria into the performance evaluation process, but we’re not basing pay on personal development, so I know it will get ignored.
  • How can I make SMART work goals for an individual employee months in advance? How would I know what they should be accomplishing six months from now – it depends on what the business needs at that time. Different projects demand different inputs from different people, and we need flexibility not static jobs.
  • How can I convince employees to change to a new way of working if the measurements, bonuses, and promotion decisions focus on the way we used to work two years ago?
  • If I pay different people on a team different amounts, I know some team members will get angry and frustrated. I can’t track all the important inputs and different employees bring such different inputs to make it all work. To get around this, I’d have to keep my pay decisions secret, and even make rules against sharing information, but a culture of secrecy does not promote trust or information sharing.

These are glaring problems with the traditional individual-based, fixed-role tool. It is unlikely that we would invent this tool from scratch, given today’s fast-change environment. The only reason that traditional management seems “normal” today is because it’s the tool that we’ve been using. It’s the one we’re used to, and it has become a habit. It is not the right tool for the job, but we find work-arounds that just about get the job done well enough to get by for another month, another quarter. But we can tell it is generating too much friction.

What is the right tool for management? As I describe in Alive at Work, successful firms will develop a competitive advantage when they iron out the details of a management system with the following characteristics:


  • Work is set up to activate positive emotions. Employees feel curiosity, excitement, and pride at work – the best emotions for learning and innovating – instead of negative emotions of anxiety, fear, dread, or boredom. Positive emotions are more likely when people experience different types of projects where they can learn, experiment, and grow without fear of being punished.
  • Work is teams-based, such that teams understand the frame of what success looks like, but then have freedom about how the work is done. Teams have decision-making power over who gets hired, how rewards are dispersed, and how to respond to customer and environmental needs. This increases sense of purpose and commitment to the work.
  • Work is outcome-based, where teams are evaluated and rewarded for their impact and the value they create (the frame of success). This is in contrast to task based work, where members are rewarded or punished for how well they follow prescribed sets of behaviors. Outcome-based evaluations encourages openness to new ways of working, and new solutions, so that both employees and leaders are learning new ways of solving problems.
  • Work is managed by servant leaders, who help shape the vision, and then try to learn from employees and help them accomplish their goals rather than emphasizing hierarchy. When leaders express feelings of uncertainty and humility, they end up encouraging a learning mindset in others, which increases experimentation and innovation.
  • Work is project-based, and allows us to recombine individuals into teams based on the client and environmental needs. This increases organizational agility and adaptability.
  • Work may shift toward outcome-based revenue models. Especially for service firms, the four characteristics above mean that clients can be billed based on the value created for them, or the results achieved, rather than the processes that they followed.

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