I don’t read People magazine. It’s not that I’m disinterested in the lives and loves of Paris, Owen, Katie, Tom, Julia, Zac, Nicole, Keith, Jen, Ben, and all the other estimable icons of 21st century haut culture; rather, it’s that I seldom have the time. Friends and colleagues expect me to read the business press, and mostly I do. I am seldom asked, however, to render an opinion on Britney’s over-exposed anatomy or Lindsay’s latest run-in with the law. Nevertheless, the other day I found myself in the gym with 15 minutes of workout remaining and no unread pages left in my Financial Times. So, making sure I wasn’t seen, I slid the November 16 issue of People out of the magazine rack (Jane Seymour—Staying Sexy at 56!) and retreated back to my treadmill. Imagine my shock, when I discovered Nicholas Negroponte’s name on the contents page.
Nick is the co-founder and long-time director of MIT’s Media Lab—and as far as I know, a model of propriety who’s never seen the inside of the Viper Room. But he’s also a driven man, a crazy visionary who dreams of closing the digital divide by getting laptops into the hands of the poorest children in the world.
Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child non-profit started producing computers in earnest last month, and is deploying the first batch in Uruguay, where a presidential initiative aims to get a computer into the hands of every school-age kid. For $399, first-world donors can get one of Negroponte’s cute, but seriously capable laptops, while sending another machine to a poverty-stricken child.
So there I was, abusing my middle-age knees while reflecting on the fact that a passionate boffin old enough to pull a Social Security check might just succeed in connecting the planet’s most disadvantaged children to a world of knowledge. And it struck me that while Nick Negroponte is certainly unusual, he’s hardly unique. There are other folks around the world—thousands of them, maybe millions of them—who’ve committed themselves to their own moonshot goals. Think of Craig Venter’s quest to unpack the human genome, of Bono’s campaign to focus attention on Africa’s crippling debt load, of Angelina Jolie’s work on behalf of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (when was the last time you saw her emerging blearly-eyed and panty-less from a Bentley at 2 am?), or of all those NASA engineers plotting the next mission to Mars. And when one ventures out beyond the spotlight of celebrity-dom and billion-dollar budgets, one finds a legion of similarly valiant folks who are ardently picking away at obstinate and out-sized problems. (For an impressive list of such individuals, check out the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.
Unlike Nick Negroponte, I’m not a technologist, nor a social entrepreneur, and on most days, not all that big-hearted either. I’m a management professor and an author. I spend most of my time talking to and working with business leaders—from low-level project managers to Fortune 500 CEOs. Most of our conversations and our energies are focused on near in, nit-picky kinds of problems: How do you improve your planning process? How do you get more teamwork? How do you get products to market faster? Nevertheless, I envy those who’ve hitched themselves to a plow and are turning up fresh ground on big problems, even if they never get to the end of the furrow—and I wonder: those of us who are managers, or care about management, what’s our moonshot? What’s the big soul-stirring problem that our colleagues—or even our shareholders—would thank us for tackling? What are the laudable challenges that would require us to strike out beyond the boundaries of best practice? What are the seemingly intractable management challenges that may never be “solved,” but would reward patient and inspired effort?
Again, unlike Nick, most of us who work in management aren’t romantics. We’re pragmatic doers, not starry-eyed dreamers. And yet, as human beings, all of us are ultimately defined by the causes we serve and the problems we struggle to surmount. And while big problems don’t always yield big advances, small problems never do.
So let me ask once more, what should be management’s moonshot for the 21st century? When you think about the way your company is organized and run, when you think about management as usual, what makes you indignant—what do you think is just plain wrong? When you focus on the future, what are the over-the-horizon challenges that are going to stretch your company’s antiquated, industrial-age management practices to the breaking point? When you look into the faces of your colleagues, all those folks who are working 10-hour days to feed their kids and pay their mortgages, do you think they deserve better? Do you want to improve their lot somehow? When you listen to the buzzwords and platitudes that get bandied about in management meetings, do you sense an appalling gap between rhetoric and reality? Are there areas where management practice is still lagging badly behind management rhetoric?
As I’ve reflected on these questions over the past few years, three big and meaty problems have taken shape in my mind:
Challenge #1: How can we build organizations that are as nimble as change itself—not only operationally, but strategically?
Why should it take a crisis to drive deep change? Ruinous write-downs, convulsive reorganizations, swingeing lay-offs, plummeting market value—everyone pays the price when companies fail to reinvent themselves in a timely manner. In a world of accelerating change, organizations large and small must become as adaptable as they are efficient. Yet most management processes do little to facilitate ahead-of-the-curve adaptation. As a result, deep change is too often episodic and crisis-driven, and too seldom continuous and opportunity-driven.
Challenge #2: How can we make rule-breaking innovation a systemic capability—how can we give everyone the chance to be an innovator?
Look on the Web and you’ll discover a world of hackers, mixers, mashers, bloggers, and podcasters. Yet at work, too many people are viewed as little more than semi-programmable robots. Yet today, as the barriers that once protected industry incumbents come tumbling down, innovation is the only antidote to margin-crushing competition. Unfortunately, though, management was invented (a hundred years ago and more) to engender conformance and alignment, rather than contrarian thinking and bold experi¬mentation—another reason it must be reinvented root and branch.
Challenge #3: How can we create work environments that inspire individuals to give their very best of themselves—that truly inspire human beings?
In today’s “creative economy,” it’s not enough to have employees who are biddable, industrious and intelligent, since these human capabilities are rapidly becoming commodities. Instead, value creation depends on the willingness of employees to bring their initiative, creativity and passion to work each day—human capabilities that are, quite literally, gifts. While traditional management systems are good at compelling obedience and harnessing expertise, they often discourage extraordinary contribution. As result, most people bring only a fraction of their capabilities to work each day, and earn no more than a meager emotional return on the time they invest in their jobs.
These are the management problems I care about—and they reflect the systemic incompetencies—the in-built design flaws, if you will—of the hierarchical and bureaucratic management model that still predominates in most commercial and public sector organizations. These are the big problems we currently beavering away on at the Management Lab.
But what do you believe should be management’s moonshot? How would you reinvent management?" And if you’ve already made a start, how is it going?