Does management know how to work?

The profile of management has changed substantially in the past fifteen or so years. It’s hard to recognize the magnitude of these changes in the same way that it’s hard to recognize the changes in your own children on a daily basis. If you take a snapshot of management today, it will likely be younger and better qualified than people in the same situation about a decade ago. The qualifications profile will also likely have a strong bias towards some kind of commercial qualification. For example I worked in a blue chip bank with a multinational footprint. The director I reported to was qualified as a chartered accountant, MBA and also had a legal degree. This kind of profile was common among senior management of the bank and remains so. This kind of setup feeds itself. It values its own image and as a result the old guard of management has slowly been displaced from the system. This perspective shows up in recruitment processes today. Look at a typical modern job specification and it will likely be heavy on KRA’s, qualifications, experience etc. The more numerous the better. A young Steve Jobs would be unlikely to make the grade set by corporate recruiters today. Of course there are exceptions and they remain exactly that.

The question is has all this change resulted in better quality of work? This begs another question. What is work and if you asked a manager or director that question today would they have a meaningful answer? I suggest the answer to these questions is NO and I submit the poor state of the economy as evidence. The question of what is work is not to be confused with the question “what work do you do?” The latter question is easy to answer. It does not necessarily translate to the creation of value and is not the subject of inquiry in this post. I’ll tender a definition of work from Bröms1 et. al. Work is a system that links each workers capacity to serve with a customer’s specific needs. Herein is the essence of a job description, all else is dressing. I also tender that if you measure most management today against this one line specification they will fail. They do not know how to work! I would further suggest that the successes of the last decade have been despite management.

What then has been the contribution of management to work? Its role is implicit in the “traditional view that an organization will reach its bottom line goals if it drives employees, suppliers and other stakeholders to achieve financial targets in their work2.” Compare this to the prior one line job description and definition of work. In this context it is easy for someone to be in a position of management and not really know the company’s products, technologies or customers and how they are related. In this context operating targets are used to drive and indirectly control work. This is where the notion of management and a worker arises from. The worker is the one who actually knows these aspects and relationships of work and delivers the actual value to the customer. The management term for this aspect of work is the word “detail.” Of course management cannot know the detail today. They cannot manage their large portfolio of responsibilities if they did. This approach to work is no different to managing a game of football by looking at the scoreboard. The reality is that when the score is not satisfactory, one ultimately has to look at the players and how they play the game. Management has to know the game to make a difference. Consider a typical scenario however. The score is unsatisfactory. The star striker is called in. His metrics show that he has not taken enough shots at the goal. He is put onto a performance management process. Pull up your socks or face dismissal he is told. It is taken for granted that the player is defective. After all the company paid top dollar based on the players track record and management got a pat on the back when they recruited him. Management will get another pat on the back when they let him go. After all managing people, [….workers] is not an easy job. Is it? It is certainly easier than knowing what work is and doing it.

This distortion in managements approach to work has taken a long time to show up. The reason may be that the “line” has been slower to change and has buffered managements effects. Today however, even the line is changing rapidly to fit managements image. What this means is that corporations are forgetting how to work and your customers probably know it.

Management is younger and better qualified today. The tenure, qualifications and experience need not become the boundary within which management stays/plays. They can serve as the means to get to grips with work in ways that prior generations of management could not. The means of management are not its ends. Management needs to take up its proper role, and “proper role of managers is to lead people to understand business as a system of work, a system that links each worker’s capacity to serve with a specific customer’s needs3.” This is the essence of management.

  1. Johnson, H. Thomas; Bröms, Anders (2011-01-20). Profit Beyond Measure: Extraordinary Results Through Attention to Process and People (Kindle Locations 232-233). Nicholas Brealey Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid. (Kindle Locations 356-357).
  3. Ibid. (Kindle Locations 232-233).

Standards at the expense of quality

How valuable would it be to business, if every worker brought the highest quality of contribution to work? Ask any manager or HR practitioner and they will likely say that this is such an obvious expectation, that the more pertinent question now is how to accomplish this. Yet efforts to accomplish this defeat their own purpose because they emerge from a mis-perception. This mis-perception is the separation of the worker from work. The issue of quality of work cannot be meaningfully addressed as long as this separation remains.

This separation is so deeply rooted in the history of work that it is hard to recognize that it even occurred. One may argue that perhaps this separation is appropriate, after all the institution of business has been built on this notion and it has had a tremendous track record of success. It is what allowed Henry Ford to bring the car to the “average man” and more recently put mobile devices in the hands of billions of people. If anything it strengthens the argument for separation. This line of reasoning is a red herring. It forgets that these very commodities were conceived in minds of craftsman, not workers. And a “craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.’ (Robert M. Pirsig)  Quality is implicit in this relationship between worker and work. They are in harmonious co-creation of each other. Separation has no meaning for a craftsman.

So let’s accept that true craftsman in the context of a corporation are rare. For some it will seem far-fetched to think of a call centre agent, a worker on a production line or teller in a bank as master of a craft. Not everybody can find this kind of harmonious union with their work today. It is a privilege reserved for a few, like artists perhaps. Modern commerce does not have the time to accommodate this aspiration. It achieves quality through much more expedient means and expediency is what it’s all about. It achieves quality through standards. Organizations have rules, processes and a variety of prescriptions which some technocrat has compiled for others to follow. It matters not so much whether you care for what you do as it does that you comply with the standards. A good worker is a compliant worker. This has become the working culture of our time and everyone is in collusion to keep it going, workers, corporations and business schools included. Today it is the norm to find the full expression of yourself outside of work. Work is the means to an end. Corporations use workers to get their work done and workers use corporations for the means to fund their real aspirations. Separation and fragmentation are the order of the day. The idea of work life balance springs from this notion. It is a lie that we have fabricated to compensate for relinquishing the craftsman in us. It is not surprising that such a system weighs down on itself, with the few that we call leadership and management mandated to buoy it up.  The separation is what makes them relevant. They exist because the misperception exists. Does this mean that there is no room for leadership and management? It does not. It does mean that their purpose is not to keep the separation in place, but to remove it. This is not easy to achieve if you have been schooled into separation all of your life.  It is the design template of our society.

So how do we put quality back into work? How do we put the worker back into work? How do we make work a craft again? There are two practices in the bedrock of quality work. Master the tools of the craft and cultivate a deep presence to work. The two are not mutually exclusive. Master the tools until “you master them with such proficiency that they become an unconscious part of your nature. You get so used to them you completely forget them and they are gone” (Robert M. Pirsig). In the midst of this kind of proficiency, presence arises. Presence then allows you to be with the event or object as it develops, sculpting the outcome moment by moment like a master craftsman. You see this for example in sportspeople in a peak moment. Their actions seem to defy all reason and we stand in awe. What we really stand in awe of, is the harmony of it all.

But presence also needs to be nurtured. Fear is the enemy of presence. It removes one from the work and shifts the focus to the self. When one is focused on the self, work becomes subordinate. Our contribution becomes bounded by what is safe. We adopt the role of compliant worker and the compliant worker only gives what he needs to. Standards then become the box that we stay within, rather than the bedrock on which we stand to build greater outcomes. Standards become the enemy of quality. And how do we treat this condition? With more standards.  More standards draw more energy and attention from presence and invite strain. Strain invites more fear. The system consumes itself.

Now you cannot release others from fear if you are fearful yourself. You cannot find freedom and excellence by changing the system of work either. Fear is not in the system or from the system. It is reflected in the system, and it reflects what is already in you, as your image would reflect in a mirror. So the process of cultivating craftsmanship starts with the release of fear. Fear thrives on judgement. This is a misuse of judgement. Recognize the judgemental labels that form our everyday lexicon.  This worker is an under-performer. There is much that is implicit in this label under-performer. What is true is that this worker did not produce the results that were expected. This perspective invites a different course of action than labelling the worker an under-performer. In the latter case (worker is an under-performer) the worker is defective and requires correction. In the former case the work is lacking and requires attention. One course of action invites a focus on work and the other invites a focus on self under the guise of focusing on work.  And when the self is threatened it seeks to defend its integrity. Work is subordinate. Quality is of no consequence. Work becomes the enemy of the worker.

Standards are not problems in themselves. Quality is not an esoteric goal. It is not the outcome of the one dimensional structure of standards and leadership driven accountability. Quality is the essence of work and work is a system that links each workers capacity to serve with a customer’s specific needs. What difference will a craftsman make to your business? Put the craft back into work and let caring be the ultimate standard.

Why caring makes all the difference to quality of work

‘Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand. The material and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind’s at rest at the same time the material’s right.’

Pirsig, Robert (2011-11-30). Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (p. 159). Random House. Kindle Edition.

Why the World of Business is Experiencing Turmoil


   There is a lot of time, energy and money spent these days, on getting corporate results back on track, on getting ahead, on being better than the competition, on winning customer loyalty, on building the most desirable brand, on winning investor approval and the like. Progress is measured by how much better a business does these things in the new business cycle compared to the prior cycle. But managing results is not as predictable as it used to be.

    If success equals results minus expectations, then corporate executives have certainly become better at managing down expectations. Despite all of the sophisticated developments published by the business intelligentsia (business schools, consultants etc.) the recent challenges of business remain and the economy still seems to be running on its own course.

    The way most companies are trying to meet the challenge of growth in this context, is through essentially doing more: longer hours, smarter employees, better systems, more sophisticated strategies, better business intelligence… and so the cycle continues. But more work is not producing commensurate results. Many companies are on the plateau, of the curve of diminishing returns. More effort is not a sustainable strategy for growth.

    Change has been happening and, continues to happen exponentially. Yet for all the change that has occurred, the template of work has remained largely unchanged for many business cycles. It may be a little more sophisticated: email has replaced conversation, emotion has been added to intelligence, the matrix structure has replaced the conventional hierarchy, ecology has been added to economy….but at its core, the way of work has remain unchanged .  And herein lays the problem. The current paradigm of work has reached its operating limits and it is showing up as a plateau in the growth trajectory of business.

    More effort from within the existing business paradigm will only push business past its operating limits. At some point any system that is pushed past its limits will break and when the paradigm breaks, businesses fail and turmoil occurs in the economy.

    To make a quantum leap forward, the way of work has to be re-conceptualised  A new paradigm is required. A new paradigm is emerging and challenging some of the first principles of business. For example, the creation of value need not be confined to within a company’s borders. Customers have become adept at crafting solutions for themselves and others like themselves. Companies don’t have exclusive rights on this role anymore, but can play a role by proving the platform for customers to create value. One way in which this phenomenon can play out for business, is that the role of business changes from creating products and services to providing value transfer platforms.

    The rules of the game have changed past the proverbial point of no return. Business, especially big business, may be able to get away for a little while longer on the old paradigm. It may seem like an appealing choice for executives who have just a few years of tenure left. But the market has “come into its own” and laypersons and entrepreneurs are pioneering a new way. Time is shrinking. Business can evolve kicking and screaming or it can participate in the design of a new paradigm. Change will go on irrespective. Evolution will not wait until we are ready.