Tag Archive | Scientific Management

Seriously, It’s Not Always About Money

Why do people want to work? Why do you want to work? Is the paycheck the only incentive? Do only professionals care about “the meaning of work?” While there aren’t straightforward answers — and philosophical discussions are called for – Professor Barry Schwartz in his “Rethinking Work” informs us that empirical evidence has pointed to “we want more than just monetary reward from our work,” and it applies across the board

barn catMore than a decade ago, the Yale organizational behavior professor Amy Wrzesniewski and colleagues did a study on custodians in a major academic hospital. These custodians’ job description never included assisting patients in any manner, but many of the custodians would go out of their ways to interact with and assist patients and their families, such as joking around to lighten the mood, tucking in rumpled bed sheets, distracting patients while nurses hooked up tubes or drew blood, or even “dancing for them.” One custodian decided to postpone vacuuming the waiting room because some family members had fallen asleep. For these acts of kindness and considerations, the custodians never got extra pay; yet, it was the prospect of feeling useful that “got them out of the bed in the morning.”

Before you argue that it’s the setting – perhaps hospitals command compassion (not everyone’s experience) – that influences people, other studies also confirm that regardless of the type of work, some people always look for higher purposes in their work environments, including even call centers. I emphasize “some” because not all people desire autonomy and purpose, both professionals and laborers.

The findings from these studies have been widely cited, yet they never seem to have reached management in most organizations. Managers by and large still hold onto the “old” belief propagated by Adam Smith (and his disciples) in his “The Wealth of Nations.” Perhaps from his observations but certainly not from impartial evidence, Smith postulated that “it is the interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can,” and therefore since people are that lazy, they would work only for pay. Remember, such assumptions were also the premise of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management that helped make assembly line work profitable. A reader, William Farina, author of “The Afterlife of Adam Smith,” responding to the New York Times article, “Rethinking Work,” informed us that Smith made the “lazy” assertion mostly based on his own profession at the time, a professor on a fixed salary. Further, Smith believed that “rivalship and emulation” would better motivate people. And even this assumption has been debunked.

Still, we keep the old assumptions like a security blanket; it may not smell great but it’s comforting…to children who need them.

I don’t presume to criticize Adam Smith’s seminal contribution; however, I resonate with Professor Schwartz’s perspective that we might have taken Smith’s assumptions for granted and created a self-prophetic process. If we assume people are fundamentally lazy, cheating and stealing at every chance, we would set up organizational structures accordingly, with rules and watchdogs. When people at work feel constrained, they find loopholes to give themselves breaks, release boredom, or just to rebel. And lo and behold, the manager spots rule breakers and confirms the assumptions that probably all people are lazy and want to cheat. By the way, aren’t managers workers too, more cogs in the organizational gears? And thereby also assumed to be lazy? The tragedy of such deficit thinking was what prompted me to start writing on these issues.images-2

Human nature is complex; it has dark sides, positive sides, and a whole lot more than 50 other shades in between. How did we latch onto the negative assumptions made by Adam Smith? Why didn’t we instead try to explore and exploit the better sides of human nature? Even Smith’s assertion that there is a trade off between work satisfaction and efficiency – in order to gain organizational or production efficiency, we have to ignore employees’ job satisfaction – has been thoroughly refuted. Research findings have yielded strong evidence that where people find engaging, challenging, and meaningful work they help increase the organization’s overall performance and profits. Conversely, “there is a human cost to routinizing and depersonalizing work.” From this angle, Professor Schwartz’s last sentence in his article, “Half of our waking lives is a terrible thing to waste” is heartbreaking.

I know this post feels like a downer but we need to understand the sources of some of our organizational ills. Hence my constant rallying cry,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com

Managing Weirdness…

…is as weird as “programming creativity.”

Throughout the book “Weird Ideas That Work,” there are a lot of “on the one hand” and “on the other hand” pieces of advice. While Mr. Sutton provides many examples and bullet points, there are no 12-step programs for managing weird ideas for creativity and innovation. There are general principles, frameworks, cautions regarding measures to avoid, and so forth. By the time a manager finishes the book, she is not necessarily better off than when she started reading. Ultimately, it’s what Sutton and his colleague, Jeff Pfeffer advise in their well-known book, “The Knowing-Doing Gap:” Just act on an idea, then you’ll learn. So, I’d say, just focus on any one of the “weird ideas” Sutton proposes in the book, and act on it.

I contend that given the chance, plenty of people in all organizations are more than happy to dream a little, try something crazy, be innovative and creative. Even some managers are creative people…they just don’t get to express creativity in their jobs. However, to foster a creative atmosphere in an organization is management’s responsibility. The biggest paradox of managing for innovation and creativity is that they cannot be managed. The manager who would manage for creativity should stay out of people’s way and manage as little as possible. This is not to suggest that managers should not provide parameters, define problems, or offer guidelines. But, is it so very terrible for managers to admit that they might not really know what the problems are, or, how the perimeters should be delineated? A little humility may open up a lot of space for others to explore.

Most of us would feel guilty for “not doing much,” which is actually part of the creative process. For instance, for any creative process, there is an incubation period during which little seems to take place. So, this is not the time for managers to demand progress reports. What managers could do instead is to provide support, perhaps create a “safe” environment for people to experiment, tinker, or fail. Managers need to be the champions of people’s ability to develop ideas, and when the time comes, of the ideas themselves – selling the ideas to upper management, locating and connecting to financial resources, removing “speed bumps” such as “milestone reports” or meetings. Managers also have to act the “cheerleader” role at times and create the self-prophetic cycle of success. Personally, I think the toughest aspects in “managing for innovation” are: (1) Dealing with (i.e. accepting) failures, and (2) Recognizing talents (i.e. give talents a chance).

Now there is one weird (and toothy) machine, "Spike Wheel Applicator" is used for fertilization.

Now, here is one weird (and tooth) machine, “Spike Wheel Applicator” is used for fertilization.

As I mentioned in the previous post, how do we define “failures?” What are acceptable failures? And what are the “stupid” ones that ought to be punished or censured? (John Cleese, in a speech referenced in my 4/14/2013 post, suggested “spelling ‘rabbit’ with three M’s” as an example of a failure that meets the stupid bar.) And for how long should we allow failures to keep piling up? Few managers or CEOs have the strength or the vision to live in such an uncertain environment.

Talent comes in all shapes, sizes, colors or educational backgrounds. The usual “selection committee,” which haunts the selection of candidates for professional ranks, is more than likely to choke off the variances (see last post) and go for the impressive resumes, sparkling presentations, or energetic self-promoters. (Sidebar: Ironically, the selected candidate often is the one who best meets the conventional expectations. Why not do a study on some successful introverts, especially in managerial ranks, and understand how they have overcome the conventional yardsticks? Introverts are not the best self-promoters.) To actually hire some of those people who make you uncomfortable – per Sutton’s weird idea #11&1/2 (on my list) – would require people on the “selection committee” to be willing to be weird themselves. But when the “selection committee” members converge on a conventional choice, how many managers would defy the committee, veto the conventional choice, and go for that “weird” candidate who might (or might not) bring about innovation?

A closer look at those "teeth."

A closer look at those “teeth.”

Most management responsibilities actually involve imperfectly defined tasks, messy emotions, wide ranges of personalities, or tangled relationships. These grey zones require the ability to appreciate nuanced dynamics and make judgment calls, more than methodical plodding, planning, and execution. But these days, we really don’t allow people to make judgment calls. We “create” procedures for every task and hide behind “due processes.” So innovation and creativity fly in the face of conventional managerial practices. Sutton suggests that there should be no superstar, such as “employee of the month,” and punishing “inaction” but rewarding “failures.” Allowing an employee to sleep under the desk would be beyond “weird” for the majority of managers.

None of what’s listed as “weird” in Sutton’s book is impossible to do. He certainly cites enough examples to make me feel almost hopeful. And he definitely would disabuse the notion that one can attain some of his principles and goals just by happening to read his book, agreeing with his teaching, and immediately acting upon it. It’s an easy-read-but-hard-to-act-on book. In the end, I still yearn for something more fundamental and perhaps philosophical that can be used to build a foundation for innovation. Ever since management as a profession was created, e.g. Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management,” organizational life and operation have grown ever more linear. Do A, B, & C then, and you will get X, Y, & Z. Yet, the creative and innovative processes have not changed much since time immemorial; they’re messy circulatory processes full of unknowns, the unexpected, accidents (good and bad), and frequent unproductive periods. It’s both risky and exciting; it’s paradoxical in nature.

So, for managers who cannot tolerate paradoxes, I would say, “Be content with flat performance, mediocre profits, and a conventional personnel pool with which to work.” As for those who would like exciting breakthroughs every so often, think about how to foster a culture in which give-and-take is standard operating procedure, trust is emphasized, playfulness is encouraged, and failures are permitted. Creativity starts with an attitude and a philosophy.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact: taso100@gmail.com



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