Archive | October 2010

Acting on Knowledge: Why is it so hard?

a big bridge

Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton’s “The Knowing-Doing Gap:  How smart companies turn knowledge into action” is an easy-to-read book, like many of their other collaborative works.  This is not a conventional book review but rather my attempt to capture some important points and use them to launch some stories and reflections.

As the authors point out, given the plethora of business books published every year, and the high speed at which information is spread these days, no single organization is likely to possess any profound and unique knowledge about how to operate well.  Further, many organizations send their managers to business schools to get the latest “education,” or introduce the latest “knowledge” via hired consultants or in-house training programs.  Yet, how often do we hear about or read about successful organizational changes?  And when there are changes, why do they always occur with great difficulty?  And when people go to seminars or workshops, they return excited, motivated, and eager to try, but soon get stymied; why?

Reading Pfeffer and Sutton’s book can be a downer.  But, or perhaps because, most of you will recognize the problems described in the book.

a small bridge

Talk Instead of Act

There are, of course, many reasons for the lack of action.  For a starter, people prefer talking much more than doing, and often confuse lengthy or high-volume talking with actual action.  To put it crudely, talking is always easier, and often sexier, than the grunt work of doing.  What’s more, once we begin to actually take action, most organizations force themselves to keep track of the development of the actions, and that can be boring and tedious.  I suspect that this also underlies many failed “mergers & acquisitions;” (M&A) it is far more exciting to go through the negotiations and decision-making, but the actual execution of the merger once the deal is sealed is painstaking and laborious.

The big semi-government agency I worked for several years ago typified this phenomenon.  The managers did seem to respond to what I could bring to the organization; they always granted me time for interviews, but whenever action was needed, I felt like I was babysitting a bunch of 5-year olds.  It was ironic; they couldn’t sit still long enough to finish one major task.  They were either on travel or on their way to other “more important” meetings.  More talking!

History/Memory Can Inhibit

We often hear about “that’s the way it has always been done;” this becomes more insidious when history is remembered as the “good old days.”  This then translates into pressure for consistency.  People who want to push the envelope often are perceived as “trouble makers,” “not team players,” etc.  However, the converse isn’t symmetrical in that some troublemakers are genuinely so and some people are truly loners.  And by the way, loners aren’t always un-contributory; some tasks are more effectively and efficiently done by single persons.  The point is that it does take effort to gather new information, from both inside and outside the organization, and to weigh pro and cons for each action.  It is much easier to rely on routine.  Extending this trend of reasoning, we can see that a “strong culture” can be a double-edged sword.

Fear Stops Everything

small waterfalls constantly moving

What is really behind inaction?  Most often, fear and distrust.  Sometimes, this is a deliberate management technique.  For instance, there are managers who believe that if people are fearful of losing their jobs, or suffering from poor evaluation, they do as they are told.  There are CEOs who are praised by Wall Street for being “tough” and fearless of criticism, for taking decisive moves; this is usually in the context of downsizing or reorganization.

The belief that fear and distrust drives efficiency and productivity persists even though studies have shown the opposite.  When people are afraid, they avoid trying anything new, ignore common sense if it is likely to displease the bosses, and suppress information that would challenge the status quo.  They just hike along the known paths, rejecting new knowledge.

“Fear that might keep you from voicing your real thoughts is poison.  Almost nothing could be more detrimental to the well-being of the company…  Once an environment of fear takes over, it will lead to paralysis throughout the organization and cut off the flow of bad news from the periphery.”  — Andrew Grove of Intel.

To turn knowledge into action, one must be willing to attempt new ways of doing things. And that can lead to errors, which many organizations these days do not tolerate.  Yet, in the past – those glorious days when the US led the world’s technologies – Americans were encouraged to explore.  Many fabulous technologies, inventions, and creative solutions were gained through “trial and error,” through wandering.  Nowadays, we seem to have lost our appetite for “errors.”  We talk about trying something new, maybe even allow a bit of experimentation.  But mistakes?  No!    Most of our large R&D organizations these days are weighed down by compliance requirements imposed by government and society at large.  At this rate, it will take only a decade or two before China assumes the role of global technology leadership.

The authors give a few examples of organizations that managed to lessen fear even during difficult times such as laying off people/downsizing/re-engineering.  The principles are:  prediction, understanding, control, and compassion.  The enlightened examples are organizations that actually let people know, ahead of schedule, who’s being laid off.  When people know, they can plan, and hence, have some control over their future.  This also allows proper good-byes and regrouping for those who stay on.  These organizations explained the “real” reasons that some people had to go.  With decent severance pay, the exit process can be managed compassionately and smoothly.  In fact, in one cited example the company actually gained productivity during downsizing.  It can be done, just not easily.

I spent more space here because I think this is such a pervasive force in our lives, both within and outside of organizations, that we should pay more attention to it.

children are fearless and active…almost always

Competition Is Particularly Destructive Within An Organization

American society is seemingly addicted to the notion that competition is good for both individual and organizational performance.  Yes, it can be for such facets as individual marathons or other sports contests, or organizational tasks that emphasize procedural uniformity, or companies competing against each other within the industry.  But within an organization, competition often turns colleagues into enemies and units into antagonistic entities, and brings down productivity and creativity for the whole organization.  Even in the entrepreneurial arena, the myth is that successful entrepreneurs are competitive loners out charting new territory, when the truth is that most entrepreneurs have to rely on a vast and extensive network of friends, family, colleagues, other business people and entities as they blaze their starting path.  To nurture their baby enterprises they need to expand their networks even more.  Where is the loner?  This is one of my pet peeves and it was also the premise of my PhD dissertation.  As the pressure of globalization increases, the need for collaboration, instead of competition, is even more acute.

The authors cite a book, “No Contest:  The case against competition,” by Alfie Kohn, in which an exhaustive review of research on the impact of competition provides strong evidence of strong performance in the absence of competition.  Kohn emphasizes that “success and competition are not at all the same thing.  Competition need never enter the picture in order for skills to be mastered and displayed, goals set and met.”  He concludes, “superior performance not only does not require competition; it usually seems to require its absence.”  In fact, research does suggest competition inhibits learning and creativity.  When put in competitive conditions, people tend to focus on others rather than on the task at hand, on third party’s reactions rather than on how best they can accomplish their work.

Another prevalent myth in this country is the sports analogy to business.  Sports usually involve physical performance while business activities require complex intellectual maneuvering and novel undertaking.  I am not saying that one is better or the other is inferior; I am simply saying that these two arenas are too different to be used comparatively.

water catching a bit of rainbow

You Get What You Measure

When measurement focuses only on outcomes, such as sales volume, amount of production, publications, etc., it ensures that people focus on short-term results. When measurement gets too complex, people lose track of what is truly important:   “When everything is important, then, nothing is.”   People are not economic units or atomistic parts of an organization.  They are social creatures who interact with each other, and it is within these interdependent relationships that work gets done.  Pfeffer and Sutton stress the importance of measuring process instead of only outcome.

The Men’s Wearhouse offers a perfect example of measuring that which the company really focuses on:  “We are in the people business, not in the suit business.”  Part of the organizational focus is on developing their employees; they do not fire employees for first-time shoplifting, sometimes not even the second time.  By giving employees a second chance, the company inspires gratitude and loyalty.  In terms of specific measurement, the company stresses process, such as team development.  How do they measure it?  By focusing the total sales volume of the store, rather than individual’s record.  In fact, they have fired individual stars who refused to help other employees on the floor.

tarr bridge, a wise old bridge (in uk)…about 3,000 years old

Let me now give a quick summary of the recommendations the authors offer:

  1. Really grasp the philosophy of the organization; why is more important than how.  Just copying what others do usually does not lead to desired results.
  2. Understand that knowing comes from doing and from teaching others how.  This is in contrast to what the majority of organizations typically do, writing surveys, studies, reports, lists of recommendations…and forgetting the actual doing.
  3. Embrace accomplishment, not making fancy and elegant strategic plans or concepts.
  4. Accept mistakes as part of life.  Mistakes are unavoidable, especially when one tries on new ideas.  What are the organizations’ responses to mistakes?
  5. Drive out fear, which is the major enemy of knowing-doing gap.
  6. Recognize that competition brings more destruction than contribution, and be mindful when using analogy.
  7. Measure what really matters (it may help to know the organization’s philosophy!), pay attention to behavior that turns knowledge into action.
  8. Recognize that what top managers do, how they spend their time, and how they allocate resources, send powerful signals.

Knowing some of these causes is important.  However, knowing why there is a knowing-doing gap would get you nowhere…till you DO.  Throughout this book, the notion that really sticks in my mind is:  Let doing lead to knowledge.  Once you DO, you will learn.  Extending this notion, managers actually should consult people on the ground who are working the products, establishing relationships with customers, possessing the complete knowledge of how things are done.  Not the other way around.

books are to be used to make bridges

As I wrote this piece it became much longer than I intended, and there were several places where I wanted to say more.   At this point, I cannot tell which place I will go next week; the unknown can be exciting, yes?  Till then, though,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

Appreciative Inquiry: some examples

an expansive view

The critical first step of Appreciative Inquire (AI) lies in framing the initial question/inquiry.  Framing provides the foundation; it sets the tone; it signals the direction.  I will illustrate a couple of examples at the organizational level and a couple at the individual level.

The first example is given in the book, “Appreciative Intelligence:  Seeing the mighty oak in the acorn,” by Tojo Thatchenkery & Carol Metzker.

a very close-up view of…

Delaware Valley Friends School (DVFS) was established in 1986, designed as a college-preparatory school, from 7-11th grades, for students with learning “differences,” such as dyslexia, other reading and writing difficulties, ADD (attention Deficit Disorder).  These students in the traditional schools generally carry the implicit labels “lazy, stupid or slow,” with years of downward spiral in their struggle to keep up with their peers.  In general, their would-be hopes for the future are rather limited; their self-esteem is needless to say on the low side, and their spirits are awfully dampened.  DVFS take them in with the premise that all students have skills (rather than abilities) that can be properly developed.  Hence the stress is on “different” learning styles rather than “difficult” learning abilities.

a partial pumpkin

The school was founded by a group of principals and teachers who used to work in the traditional school systems and over the years were increasingly alarmed by the restrictive nature of traditional teaching methods and attitudes.  So they left to start DVFS with AI philosophy.  The first year, they met their minimum enrollment of 21 students, and have grown steadily to the current 150+ enrollment.  They help students realize their potential by focusing on their abilities at-hand, rather than the abilities that don’t exist.  What it is vs. what it isn’t.  Students are not short-changed to bypass curriculum that might present difficulties; they learn to negotiate through the requirements relying on their strengths.  98% of the DVFS graduates go to college!  Many graduates have gone on and achieved national and international accolades.

many pumpkins for a patch

or one pumpkin for soup

One specific and concrete example is the design of their library.  A library is usually intimidating for students with dyslexia.  So a profound concern during the design phase was, “what if the students wouldn’t come when it is built?”  Their reframing question was, “how to catch the students’ attention and encourage them to stay in the library?”  Now, when students walk in the newly designed library, immediately there are stacks of colorful magazines that are age-appropriate and interesting.  Comfortable chairs are stationed in between the shelves.  Walls are made of the type of glass used by discos to help reduce noise and allow students to converse and to view people and activities around them.  Instead of treating the library as the traditional quiet place for only reading and researching, at DVFS it is a place for students to not just learn but to create their own community.

The second example is from the book, “The Power of Appreciative Inquiry:  A practical guide to positive change,” by Diana Whitney & Amanda Trosten-Bloom.

some animal?

In 1998, British Airways Customer Service did a system-wide reorganization.  They came up with a list of topics, one of which concerned the luggage issue, i.e. delayed or lost luggage, with which most of us have unfortunate experiences.  In their group discussion, it is easy to imagine the stories shared were all expressing frustration.  At the end, the consultants asked these questions:  “[Given the newly designed direction for the organization,] what is it that you want more of in British Airways?  In this case, we know you do not want more lost or delayed baggage.  But what do you want more of?”  The respondents’ old habits lead them to say, “better service recovery.”  To which the consultants responded, “Let’s see if we have this right.  It’s OK to lose a customer’s baggage as long as you recover it promptly?”  Of course that was not what they wanted.  So, the clarification of “what do you want more of” led to “what affirmative actions would move the organization in the direction you want?”  After some discussion, their conclusion was “exceptional arrival experience.”  So the focus for the BA agents was on customers’ arrival, not just the baggage.

Now, I have to admit that I haven’t flown on BA for years so cannot attest to their “arrival experience.”  And given the airline industry’s current generally dismal performance at worldwide level, the prevailing negativity is likely to have pulled BA into some forms of regression.  But I think the exchange is illustrative.  In addition, the probable contrast between the two examples (assuming BA has regressed in recent years) highlights the crucial aspect of sustaining organizational changes.  To sustain requires internalized commitment across all levels in an organization, and this may be the toughest aspect of making any changes in an organization (or, for that matter, within an individual as well).

with a red scarf on its back

So, framing the initial question is utterly important.  For instance, a typical diversity concern is “there are problems of sexism, or there is evidence of discrimination,” etc.  Indeed, one can collect and analyze data, and try to understand the underlying dynamics that allow these problems to arise.  Or, one can ask, “How can we find some exceptional examples of cross-gender relationships in which participants feel valued and work well together?”  Such experience might not be pervasive, but is nevertheless a good start for building a new foundation.  (This came from “Appreciative Inquiry:  Change at the speed of imagination.”  By Jane Magruder Watkins & Bernard J. Mohr.)

Think about it:  When you want to improve morale, do you look for examples of bad morale? (“The beatings will continue until morale improves!”)  Or should you look for stellar morale?

oh, just an oversized toy llama

Now, stories at individual level.

some abstract sculptures

A group leader’s administrative assistant is a young and competent woman.  But between her various personal needs, grandparents’ and parents’ illnesses, young children’s school delays and days-home, husband’s inability to support, and the organization’s constant demands of this training and that new requirement, she was not reliably at her desk answering phone calls, which made frustrated others trying to collaborate with the group.  Should the group leader reprimand her? Lecture her? Tell her to shape up or else?  Look for a new assistant and suffer a 6-month wait before replacement can be found?  None of these would likely bring improved performance for the assistant or the group.  Instead, the leader talked with the admin about how they can structure her time in such a way that at least for a couple of hours a day, a fixed period, people could rely on her presence in the office.  So it worked, for a while.  But eventually, the personal stuff kept intruding and the admin could not stick to the structure.  AI is not a panacea.

a close-up is more intriguing

I worked with a small organization during a time when it was certain that one (troublesome) employee had to go even though she was very good for the initial few years.  I was brought in to help the organization to regroup, and wasn’t expected to issue the let-go to the employee in question.  However, when I had to interview this employee — she still thought she would stay — she was very scared about the future.  So, I asked her to describe how she came to the current organization from out of town, and built a pretty good program.  Then, recalling that she had herself disclosed her recent divorce, I further nudged her to think about how she mustered the courage to end the abusive relationship.  Both of these questions were meant to encourage her to focus on her strengths.  Toward the end of our conversation, she began to sketch ways in which she could mobilize her vast network to find other opportunities.  A couple days later, she tendered her resignation.  I don’t know how things are for this individual currently (according to the grapevine she landed on her feet, at least initially), but the small organization is happier and thriving.  These examples are illustrations of snapshots of a period or a point in time.  However transformative an experience can be, once it is done, it’s no longer transformative.

unframed watercolor stilllife

Appreciative inquiry is both a philosophy and a process by which to change oneself and/or organizations.  It is not to be treated as a one-shot deal.  Everyone says that changes are difficult — indeed they are — but I’d say, sustaining the changes is a lot more challenging.  And no, there isn’t a magic wand, no 12-step manuals, despite retail bookstores.  When I read the book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap:  How smart companies turn knowledge into action” by Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton, I hoped for some magic bullets, but alas, reading such a title does not substitute for doing.  Next time, I will relate the gist of this book.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

right frame enhances a painting

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

Appreciative Inquiry

abundant flow

Appreciative Inquiry: a positive method to change an organization

People always lament that change is very difficult, especially in an organization. They usually don’t mean that they themselves would resist all changes, as long as they are reasonable. So, what’s reasonable? That, right there, begins the messy process of change.

In a crude manner, I break organizational change into three categories: (1) Change for the sake of making changes. It strikes me that a lot of new managers when taking on their new title feel the need to demonstrate that they are doing something different. They feel compelled to make a few changes whether they are necessary or not. (2) Forced changes because of some accumulated problems or errors; these can be brought on internally, externally, or most likely a combination of both. Examples are diversity programs, ethics courses, or downsizing (funny, we seldom hear of the opposite, like a surge of hiring) (3) Change to fulfill a vision of a different – and hopefully better – future. This is probably the most rare type. All of them do evoke at least some discomfort, and most of the time, fear, but occasionally, they can bring about excitement when done right.

Generally, management pushes changes in an organization when facing problems. For example, how does one stop a vicious cycle in an organization? Or, how does one reverse the demoralization of the workforce? Or, whenever an accident occurs, big or small, large organizations who always have to be mindful of regulatory compliance often go into a frenzy trying to figure out how to prevent the next accident, big or small. So, how to right the wrong? Certainly not by more admonition, berating, clamping down, choking off, worrying, or any other negative or punitive treatment. But this is what most organizations do when management proposes changes. A few managers may adopt the type of approach that highlights only the positives, sometimes even in the face of not-so-positive evidence. But changing an organization cannot be done with only a few people’s vision, ideals, and programs. Neither can it be achieved by top management issuing edicts, doling out measures, and expecting the workforce to embrace the directives.

By and large, changes and problems are intertwined. When we are asked, “where is the problem area?” or “what is your problem?” we immediately get a sense of dejection; we feel a knot in the stomach. We either become defensive or we surrender to measures imposed by external forces. This is called “scarcity mode” or “deficit mode” of thinking and operation. The conventional methods of finding “solutions” or doing a “gap analysis” emphasize the comparison of strengths and weaknesses, but are still based in deficit mode. Haven’t we sensed a drain in energy whenever we talk to those who only focus on problems? The typical mode of locating a solution to a “defined” problem (assuming the isolated problem is indeed a real and major one) treats the solution as an entity targeted at the problem but separate from the rest of the organization. For instance, after an R&D oriented organization had an accident/incident, the management devised a whole new round of procedures to, hopefully, prevent exact or similar accidents from occurring again. This was done without ever giving a thought to how the new procedures might impact on the greater context of how research was done, and accordingly it did choke the flow of research. Such a machine model generally creates more problems that beg for yet more solutions which lead to new problems, and on we go. Hence, the saying, “the more changes you make, the more you stay the same.”

bundled harvest

Imagine, instead, having a forum in which you do the opposite of the above approach, and actually start with some of the “excellent” moments in your experience. The premise here isn’t about ignoring “the problem,” but how to couch the problem-solution in the whole context of the organizational goal for the future. The aim isn’t about tearing something down but how to build something up. And it all begins with individuals. So, let’s try it…now, focus on one great experience you’ve had…think about what you were doing, who was involved; what were the circumstances that made it so fabulous; what were the outcomes of the work. Note particularly how you feel in remembering this experience, especially your energy level. You can’t possibly feel dejected right now, can you?

This aspect of locating that positive reserve is the key of a relatively new framework called Appreciative Inquiry. It teaches people to explore, to allow an individual space for an in-depth and complete narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end. This method is not meant as an excuse for us to bask in fond memories and wish we could return to our glorious past. We can never recreate or duplicate a social world. But employing this method, the collective entity — everyone — can share a positive foundation from which to build a future that just may recapture some of the energizing forces of our experience, forces with which we can then build something different, and hopefully better. By advocating this approach, we are not implying that we try to bypass or ignore the problems, but in employing a larger framework, the problems might be rendered nill or less serious by the potentially more effective solutions.

red and more red

David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva are responsible for conceptualizing Appreciative Inquiry (AI). This concept/framework/approach (it’s always difficult to pigeon-hole complex thinking) has since been practiced and written by many, Diane Whitney, Cathy Royal, Barbara Sloan, Jane Magruder Watkins, to name a few. You can find great examples and cases in their books.

Appreciative Inquiry isn’t a Pollyanna approach; it is about how to engage people in feeling vested and eager for the future; it looks ahead; it creates momentum. Appreciative Inquiry has a strong research base in three areas. The first research strand is in medicine: the placebo effect, where healing can occur owing to one’s belief that it will occur. The effect is even stronger when the experiment is “double blind” in that neither the doctor nor the patient knows which dose is placebo. (From the perspective of “modern medicine,” the placebo effect is a nuisance that interferes with finding a genuine cure; this is an example of deficit mode thinking pervading an entire field. From the perspective of Appreciative Inquiry, the placebo effect is a glorious mystery with unrealized potential waiting to be utilized.)

The second research strand is the “Pygmalion” effect. When teachers are told that certain students are gifted – randomly assigned – the students begin to have superior performance, brought on by the teachers’ behavior as influenced by the expectations. Longitudinal studies show that these effects are nearly permanent. The opposite is also true: when a person’s spirit is broken, she or he keeps going downhill.

The third strand lies in recent research on positive emotions. We have already accepted that negative emotions (stress, fear, anxiety, distrust, etc.) affect us, psychologically and physiologically. As researchers have begun to pay attention to how positive emotions affect us, they have found that people whose “internal dialogue” (the constant commentary running in our head during our waking hours) is about 2:1 or higher between positive and negative comments, tend to succeed in their endeavors. Those with 1:1 ratio of good and bad comments are less successful, often approaching unhealthy. When it gets above about 10:1, the person is in delusion. In a healthy marriage, the ratio is 5:1 of positive to negative exchanges. Imagine how it works in a large organization?! Yet, people in most organizations are not accustomed to hearing praise about their work. Or, when they do, they get a little suspicious. Many professionals may think that their sense of accomplishment in their work is the best praise. However, in the prolonged absence of any positive acknowledgement and recognition, most organizations, or people in them, would deteriorate.

variety is good

To appreciate is to value, to give energy to, to give more life to living systems. (Its opposite, to depreciate, is to devalue or even insult, to pull energy from.) To inquire is to search, to explore, to seek information, to investigate, and to discover. Using a positive process to uncover and discover the life-sustaining forces will help an organization change toward a future that the workforce can aspire to, and keep on renewing itself.

Of course, just by an organization employing this approach through a 4-day workshop does not even begin to better that organization. The key is always about sustainability; it is especially critical when attempting to change an organization fundamentally. There are no shortcuts, no 12-step manual to refer to when one feels rusty, and this is definitely not a one-size-fits-all program. In fact, part of the beauty of AI is its organic nature where each organization creates its own version of AI for its particular future.

Lest you suspect that I may be one of those “new age” airheads, I will pull some examples from some of the reading materials in my next post.

Till then, Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

abundant harvest

Direct contact: taso@gmail.com

copyright taso100 © 2010 – 2015 all rights reserved: no photos or content may be reproduced without prior written consent

The beginning…and

glimpse of sunrise

“Toward a Sensible Organization” may seem oxymoronic to some people. Perhaps, but it is nevertheless a worthy goal to strive for. In this space, I will provide my reflections and opinions on some organizational issues, and invite your voices to provide feedback, experiences and stories of your organizational life.

I have a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. I have taught and consulted for a few years. I once tried to practice what I preach and worked in a large government organization; while my views were well received from top down/down up, I found propelling the top to act was harder than moving a mountain. People at the lower rank were a lot more motivated to act on their initiatives. The contrast here is probably worthy of a PhD dissertation!

I now live in a small community in the southwestern United States. I still dream about having some consulting practices that would carry me to the rest of the country or even the world, but so far, it’s been a nice dream.

Yet, I yearn for studying organizations, listening to people’s stories, sifting through data and feeling the rush when patterns emerge, and tasting the excitement when I strike resonance with others in discussion.

So I decided to join the blogosphere and create a virtual space in which I can ruminate on some organizational theories, principles, models, etc., and attempt to render these ideas in practical terms for readers. Each piece I post would have a theme. Readers’ responses, especially their own stories, are welcomed, and with these additional inputs, I will modify the original posting, to be re-posted later.

Over the years, as I have worked with people from organizations of various sizes and natures, my impression is that there seem to be more people unhappy with their organizations than those who are joyful about their organizations. Now, this doesn’t mean that people in general don’t like their work. Most of them probably do; hence all the more frustration with the collective speed bumps and obstacles they encounter in their organizations on a daily basis. Many of these hindrances probably are the consequences of management decisions, intended and unintended. While managers are a minority of the workforce, they certainly wield a large amount of power. This might be one of the many reasons that they are perceived as a hostile or clumsy presence, re the caricature in Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” comic strips. But close-up, they are by and large decent individual human beings, just as trapped in organizational dynamics as those who report to them.

I am not being sympathetic toward managers; in fact, all my life, I tend to side with the “underdogs.” However, my post-graduate education certainly has taught me some of the nuances in organizational issues, all complicated. In this space — over time — I will cover aspects of the following topics:
* group dynamics
* leadership and followership
* individual identity within a group/organizational context
* conflict — not all bad
* gender and many other diversity issues
* cross-cultural interactions
* emotional intelligence and other intelligences
* creativity and innovation
* reviews of some articles and books, both academic and popular.

This is not an exhaustive list, of course, even if that were possible. As I gather more feedback from you, I will have better appreciation of what really matters to you, both short-term and long-term, and address them accordingly.

My plan at this point is to post one entry a week. I hope we’ll have plenty of interesting and thoughtful conversations.

Still dark…yet

Bad Management Theories Lead to Bad Organizational Practices

It wasn’t my intention to write in the negative for my opening salvo. Alas, I often think that the foundation of many professions, including social sciences, is built upon human discomfort. Let’s hope that over time, I can provide more positive energy!

When I was in graduate school, I often had a feeling of disquiet regarding certain theories, especially the ones based in economics using neat and elegant equations, or models constructed with impeccable rationality. But being a student, while we might be able to voice some of our criticism in private or in class discussions, we do not foolishly challenge these theories too publicly (certainly not without research evidence) especially when these theories or models are published by well-established authority figures. This is as much about the state of the field of management as it is about the nature of academic dynamics.

So, it was with delight — however belated and private – when a few years back I read a poignant article in a major journal, written by a prominent scholar, refuting some of the very same theories that had troubled me as a student.

Sumantra Ghoshal, an eminent professor at the London Business School at the time of his death, published posthumously an article, “Bad Management Theories Are Destroying Good Management Practices,” in Academy of Management’s Journal of Learning and Education (2005, vol 4, No 1, pp 75-91). In it, he highlights three theories that have been widely pushed by business schools but are fallacious in that they are devoid of fundamental understanding of the complexity of human behavior, relationships, and emotions. This article should be made known to a much wider audience. This is my attempt to summarize it.

The three theories on which Ghoshal focuses are:

1. “Agency theory,” which states that managers cannot be trusted to know how to maximize shareholders’ value. Even though the very notion that shareholders’ value should be the only focus for corporation is seriously flawed, it is nevertheless the premise on which the popular practice of tying managers’ salaries to stock options is based.
2. “Transaction Cost” theory, which assumes that people act opportunistically whenever possible, i.e. cheating, lying, or shirking. So organizations build ever tighter monitoring and control systems to prevent, detect, deter, and/or punish employees for such behaviors. 3. “Competitive Strategy,” which advocates that companies cannot just focus on their competitors; they should compete against their suppliers, regulators, customers, and even employees. Little wonder the expectation of “trust” has been steadily eroding over the past decades.

Business schools have been teaching these theories, if not by names then certainly by concepts, to thousands of MBAs and various levels of managers through executive education programs. Even more people have absorbed these theories and concepts through osmosis. And while these theories may not themselves be well known by name, their practices reflect worldviews that have become deeply rooted into the consciousness of most managers.

These theories are based in economics; they lack the morality and emotion which usually surround people’s intentions and choices. These natural human qualities are not easily accounted for nor are they convenient for creating elegant mathematical formulae; this inconvenience then upsets a professor’s stream of publications for getting that coveted tenure. In their desire to promote simplicity, concepts expressed in statistics, and mechanical tools offering controlling methodology, the business schools have pushed these theories onto managers to be absorbed and applied.

Firing up

Social sciences differ greatly from physical sciences. Human thoughts, intentions, behaviors, and emotions are not easily quantified, controlled, manipulated, or predicted, not with 100% accuracy, not even half of that rate at half of the time. Furthermore, there is the self-fulfilling prophetic effect about which physical scientists do not have to worry but with which social scientists, and practicing managers, have to contend. If managers assume that people would cheat or shirk, they structure the organizations to catch cheaters and shirkers; by doing so, the organizational environment becomes stifling and more employees behave with organizational interests at low priority. This in turn feeds into managers’ expectations of unworthy subordinates, and they continuously design ever-increasingly vigilant organizations. Have you noticed that rules and regulations seem only to increase? Do we ever take some rules off the table?

There are ill effects on the managers as well. For instance, by making the profoundly erroneous assumption that managers are not to be trusted to maximize shareholders’ values, organizations tie their salaries to the stock value which then becomes managers’ major focus. “Profoundly erroneous” because the real worth of an organization is not in the stock market but in combinations of employees’ knowledge, relationships, skills and talents, equipment, structures, and liabilities. Stocks are but one aspect of a company’s values; however, as a consequence of this assumption, managers are driven to concentrate their efforts on only the measurable factors that they can manipulate at the expense of “softer” aspects, such as morale, respect, trust, creativity, and innovation. These words are now mouthed in the forlorn hope that saying them often enough is a satisfactory replacement for truly accomplishing them. But because these “softer” aspects are some of the hardest to understand, grasp, delineate, foster, and accomplish, and so they are usually the first casualty in management practices, especially during a period of dramatic change.

Somehow we have come to assume that companies in private industry are the “right” models for all organizations to emulate, despite the repeated foul-ups of monstrous scale we have witnessed over decades, again and again, from Enron to Goldman Sacks. In some of my dealings with government agencies and NFP organizations, they too hold onto the same metrics that are prevalent in the private sector, with little positive outcome to show for this attachment. This is another topic worthy of deeper exploration at a later time.

It is much easier to assign numbers, anything on a 1-5 scale, to tangibles such as timelines, milestones, or even performance measures (assuming one has a good definition of “performance”). A project that can meet milestones may not offer room for exploration, which is the foundation of creativity and innovation, but “milestones” are nevertheless used without question as the appropriate driving metric. Can anyone predict when you might be creative, or what the outcomes of innovative endeavors might look like? As for other tangible items…let’s use “employee satisfaction” as another example. Is 10% finding of unhappy employees a serious concern? Or, should the dissatisfaction rate be above 50% before management needs to treat it seriously? In a similar vein, sticking to the measurable and the concrete, there are so many manuals for procedures and protocols that one wonders if that also has robbed people of their acceptance of imagination (too dangerous?) and responsibilities (hey, not my fault, I am just following the rules).

Getting there

Over a few decades of my observations, several organizations with emphasis on research and development all have gone to this increasingly restrictive mode of operations. Safety and security trump everything. And because no one dares to openly state that accidents may be an inevitable cost of creativity and innovation, we go along with the ever growing regulatory volume. Complaints are only voiced at water cooler areas or private dinner gatherings. I keep wondering if US’s losing the leading edge in new technologies, such as in the green energy area, might not be directly related to our growing intolerance of accidents? I know many scientists feel so.

As for the competitive mode of operation, I guess that’s the sacred cow of market/capital economy. However, does competition mean that my gain shall always lead to someone else’s loss? While it may not be possible to always have a win-win solution, it is a much more empowering goal than what the traditional win-loss would bring to people. We may feel that sometimes this society is too competitive; yet, we are all also powerless to change it.

So, in my next piece I will delineate a framework/an approach (not mine) to aim for constructing rather than constricting, for building rather than attacking, for energizing rather than enervating. Sounds too good? Why assume impossibility? Sounds too saccharine? Or, are we so saturated with acidic bile in our mouth that a little sweetness is a suspect? Till then,

Staying Sane & Charging Ahead

A brilliant dawn

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