A few months back I sat down for a conversation with one of the world’s most distinguished organizational theorists, an emeritus professor who has published more articles in A-list journals than I’ve had hot breakfasts. As we sipped our coffees and peered out into the trees that surround my home office, I shared my dreams for the future of management. Surely, I argued, there must be a way of making big companies more resilient—of helping them to become as nimble as they are efficient.
And shouldn’t we be able to figure out a way of making large organizations as innovative as they are disciplined? And what about the 80% of employees around the world who, according to survey statistics, are less than fully engaged in their work? I mean, jeez, there has to be a way of making organizational a lot more uplifting and a lot less dispiriting.
As I prattled on, the wise old professor leaned back in his chair and made a tent with his fingers. Clearly, my enthusiasm, tinged with more than a little righteous indignation, wasn’t proving to be as infectious as I had hoped. Soon I was getting the same politely tolerant look that parents reserve for precocious ten year olds intent on becoming fighter pilots or deep sea divers.
“Gary,” my visitor interrupted, “those are laudable goals, but they’re entirely incompatible with the essential nature of large organizations. Big companies are the way they are.”
Unwilling to pick an argument with this grandee, I backed off, and soon the conversation drifted onto other topics. But as my august visitor backed out of the drive, I reflected on his pessimism. Was he right? Was there really only one methodology for managing large groups of individuals at work, one built around Max Weber’s creaky, old bureaucratic model?
OK. I admit it. I don’t know if it’s really possible to build an organization that elicits a full measure of imagination and passion from every one of its members. I don’t know whether it’s possible to create companies that can change as fast as change itself. I don’t know whether it’s possible to achieve momentous feats of coordination without creating equally momentous bureaucracies. (Picture, if you will, the 4,000 souls who labored inside of Microsoft to produce Vista, the latest release of the Windows operating system.) Nevertheless, I’m sure as hell unwilling to assume that fundamental advances in how we lead, manage and organize are simply impossible.
I live close to Stanford University, and when I poke around the engineering school, the computer science department, or the medical school, I come across folks who are ferociously intent on inventing the future. They are hard at work conjuring up new materials, perfecting new processes, creating new algorithms, and testing new therapies. They are discontented with the current state of scientific knowledge and dream of achieving big breakthroughs that will change millions of lives. You will understand, then, my frustration with the fact that so few management professors seem committed to inventing the future of management.
Unlike their counterparts in medicine, engineering, and computer science, business school professors don’t generally see themselves as the inventors of new methods, tools and approaches. Most study management as it is, and seldom dream of management as it might be, or should be. They describe, but they don’t create. Like the esteemed academician who visited my office on the cool, autumn afternoon, they seem to believe that it’s impossible to change the bureaucratic nature of big companies; that we’ll never be able to overcome the systemic incompetencies of large organizations. (Never mind the fact that it was human beings who invented the modern industrial company in the first place.)
By and large, my scholarly peers are not romantics—they have not devoted themselves to a grand quest. Within management research, there is no project equivalent in scope and ambition to reducing carbon emissions, curing AIDS, imbuing machines with intelligence, developing hydrogen-powered vehicles, or commercializing space travel. Where is management’s Human Genome Project? Where is its $100 laptop? Where is its manned mission to Mars?
Sure, the pace of scientific progress is constrained by the laws of science. But progress can equally be constrained by a lack of daring. At the moment, I think it is most the latter that constrains our progress in inventing organizations that are strategically adaptable, endlessly innovative, and highly engaging places to work.
So, give it some thought. As managers, and management scholars, what’s our moon shot for the 21st century?