in Management

A really, really big idea

(Cartoon by Gary Larson)

Much of what we practice as management today is unthinking and ineffective. And it’s been that way for a long time.

There’s plenty of research to show that the way we recruit people, measure their performance, and promote them are all seriously flawed.

Our budgeting, strategic planning, and other big-company processes – even the ways we organize ourselves – are are so universally maligned as to be comic, inspiring cartoons, TV shows, movies, and even a board game. (“Dilbert”, “The Office”, “Office Space”, and “The Peter Principle Board Game” to name a few.)

They’re funny because they’re true. We’re all going through the same management theater even though we all know it’s not working well.

But it’s not that we’ve been stupid. It’s that we’ve had the wrong model for how an enterprise should work.

What’s wrong?

For the last 100+ years, our model for the modern corporation has been a machine, and all the players in it merely parts.

This has had some upside and, for certain kinds of work, still does. We focused on process, repeatability, and automation. We became much more efficient at making and moving things.

The problems arose when we applied that mechanical model to everything we do in a company.

In applying this mechanistic model, we’ve tried to take the human out of work. We created management processes for everything, organized people into discrete units to implement parts of those processes, and then measured inputs and outputs.

The corporate machine would work well if only everyone knew their part and all the parts were aligned properly,

But we aren’t aligned like cogs. Much of management is about people. And people, to quote Trisha Liu, are “messy.”

What’s possible?

Humanize”, an excellent book by Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter, points to another way, “a dramatic shift away from our mechanical model and toward a more human way of running our organizations.”

Importantly, “Humanize” doesn’t preach overhauling everything we do but seeks to complement our mechanical model with a more natural, biological approach to work. To embrace our humanity and create a working environment that’s more agile and self-organizing. One that tries many new things and fails but, in so doing, is more adaptive and likely to survive.

How might we achieve this? What would it look like? Since it’s not a machine, there’s no blueprint. No mechanistic model to try and replicate.

Instead, the authors demonstrate how core elements of our humanity can be applied and used as a latticework – like amino acids in a double helix – upon which a modern business can grow.

What’s next?

Changing our very concept of an enterprise is a really, really big idea. It’s heretical. It goes against everything we’ve been taught. It’s different from what everybody else is doing.

It’s akin to what the first quantum physicists went through – and are still going through – as they overturned centuries of Newton’s classical mechanical model of the universe. From “Humanize”:

“Going against centuries of scientific truth is not easy, even for the scientists who led the way. Quantum physicist Neils Bohr said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” We have collectively struggled to find language that describes the strange reality of quantum physics. One astronomer said “the universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.: Having grown up in a world of machines, we have a hard time figuring out what a thought looks like.”

We’re amazed by possibilities of social media and social business, of re-humanizing businesses. Yet we, too, struggle with language to describe the future of management. And it may take decades for these ideas to evolve and for us to implement them well.

Applying the ideas in “Humanize” is a great first step.