MLab

Improving Our Capacity to Manage

Posted by Gary Hamel with Polly Labarre on April 5, 2011

In my last post with Polly Labarre, I noted that few teenagers dream of growing up to be a manager.  Prosaic it may be, but management is one of humankind’s most important inventions, encompassing the tools and methods we use to mobilize and organize resources to productive ends. It is, quite simply, the technology of human accomplishment.  Our capacity to improve the state of the world is ultimately bounded by our capacity to manage.

That said, the management model that predominates in most organizations has its roots in the 19th century. It was built to maximize efficiency by minimizing deviations from standard practices. But today’s organizations must be more than well-oiled machines; they must also be endlessly adaptive and relentlessly innovative. The fact that most aren’t demonstrates just how little progress has been made in retooling management for a new age.

Nevertheless, in most large organizations one can find a scattering of restless managers who are eager to disrupt the status quo—and one or two who’ve actually taken a risk and launched a small-scale experiment. Problem is, it’s often hard for these renegades to get a hearing, and even when experiments go well, they often fail to scale.

So a couple of years ago I asked a small band of management thinkers to put their heads together—what could be done to multiply the impact of these would-be management renegades? One idea: create an online platform where progressive managers from around the world can share their fledgling ideas and experimental results. In other words, leverage the technology of Web 2.0 to crowd source the invention of Management 2.0.

Hence the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX).

The MIX is the first open innovation initiative aimed at reinventing management. It is built around a scaffolding of 25 “management moonshots”—a roster of make-or-break challenges designed to elevate the ambitions and focus the energies of management innovators everywhere. From dramatically increasing trust to expanding the scope of employee autonomy to retooling management for an open world—the moonshots are the gnarly problems that must be tackled if we’re serious about creating organizations that are truly fit for the future—and fit for human beings.

In building the MIX, we started with a simple proposition: there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of individuals around the world who are already working to lay the foundations of Management 2.0.  Most of these folks aren’t C-suite executives and many are laboring in out-of-the-way places—in a remote corner of a global enterprise, in a small department of local government or in some unglamorous company that doesn’t usually attract the attention of the business paparazzi. The challenge is to aggregate and highlight these “positive deviants,” and in so doing, turbo-charge the usually haphazard process through which radical new ideas and practices get discovered, documented and disseminated.

One way the MIX tackles this challenge is to host contests for outstanding innovation in management. The first  “M-Prize” competition, which concluded late last year, was built around three uber-challenges: reinventing leadership, increasing trust and taking the work out of work.

The winners were chosen by a panel of CEOs and thought leaders including Terri Kelly of W.L. Gore, John Mackey of Whole Foods, Bill George, ex-chairman of Medtronics, Leighton Reed of Alloy Ventures and Professors Raj Sisodia and Tom Malone.

Here’s a look at the initial crop of M-Prize winners:

Moonshot:  Reinventing Leadership . . .

Forget your people:  Real leaders act on the system

A story by John Seddon and Owen Buckwell

Responsible for a large public housing program in England’s 11th-largest urban area, Owen Buckwell and his Portsmouth City Council flouted authority and convention to develop a highly responsive system for just-in-time, nearly perfect repairs and maintenance work that serves tenants and the people who do the work, rather than the civil servants who manage them.

Buckwell’s recipe: first, get lots of data. Understand the deep roots of tenant complaints (“the plumber had to come back three times because he never has the parts he needs”). Second, get first-level employees to define their own work standards and methods. It’s the folks who are closest to the customer who should be designing the organization’s workflows. Third, equip employees with the information they need to get the job done on time, the first time. The payoff:  thousands of delighted tenants and a workforce of plumbers, carpenters and craftspeople who have the information and motivation to excel.

Buckwell’s tough-minded case study adds weight to the argument that it is clumsily constructed systems, rather than apathy, that keep employees from giving their best.

***

The boss-less organization: From bosses to mentor/investors

A hack from Tory Gattis

How do you move from a “command-and-control” leadership structure to one focused on motivating and mentoring? That’s the challenge Tory Gattis, founder of OpenTeams, takes on in his hack. Gattis argues that organizations need to abandon the boss-subordinate hierarchy in favor a new relationship that brings internal “mentor investors” together with intrapreneurial teams. Like Silicon Valley’s angel investors, mentors would provide funding, offer advice and make connections—but wouldn’t directly manage.

Key elements of the hack:  Employees pitch ideas for investment—for a small project aimed at operational improvement or something grander. There is a large network of mentor investors who are able to provide funding and project teams are free to shop their ideas around. Investors can form syndicates to back bigger, riskier investments. Over time, successful investors and teams would command a larger share of resources.

In an organization built around Gattis’ hack, every idea would have the chance to compete on an equal footing and no single manager would have the power to kill a great idea. That would be a huge spur for innovation and proactive change.

***

Moonshot:  Increasing Trust . . .

Organizational trust 2.0

A story by Ross Smith

Microsoft’s Ross Smith got his start as a management innovator when he invited his 80-person team to help him design a work environment that reflected their priorities and expectations—a place where work was fun, where initiative was rewarded and collaboration happened naturally.  Smith believed that trust was the foundation stone of an organizational culture that would involve and enthuse his mostly young, highly educated team. Says Smith: “The freedom to fail, the willingness to suggest new ideas, empowerment, creative freedom, flexibility and agility—all of these actions are rooted in trust.”

Smith got the ball rolling during a weekly pizza party when he invited his charges to identify the behaviors that contribute to a high-trust environment. The brainstorming session generated a list of 150 trust-building behaviors, which evolved into a wiki. Team members ranked the trust enablers and contributed definitions and stories to illustrate the specific behaviors that nourish organizational trust (for example, “praise publicly, correct privately”).  The result: a collectively authored “trust playbook” that focused attention around the priority of cultivating that elusive quality on a day-to-day basis—and gave the team a shared vocabulary to “call out things we wouldn’t normally have talked about,” says Smith.

Smith’s all-hands trust building exercise ultimately gave rise to an initiative dubbed “42 projects.” Part support group, part entrepreneurs club, 42 projects has yielded everything from a book club to a series of collaborative productivity games aimed at improving management processes to an innovative game designed to ramp up the quality of international versions of Windows (some 4600 players across Microsoft signed on in just four months).

Today 42 projects involves some 300 people across the company and seems to prove out Smith’s founding hypothesis: the sense of trust that emerges from careful cultivation and shared experience opens people up to try new things, experiment more boldly, play (and learn) at work.

***

The judgment factory: Reverse engineering dangerous judgments in turbulent times

A hack by Annie McQuade and Erika Ilves

Recession. New business models. Industry consolidation. Major reorgs. Global competition. As an employee, there are plenty of things that can turn your world upside down. It’s hardly surprising, then, that many people go to work each day gripped by a gnawing sense of anxiety, and are often tempted to read the worst into every executive pronouncement. In their hack, Annie McQuade and Ericka Ilves suggest a way of defusing the grim (and often unfounded) fears that sap initiative. As the authors note, when there’s a deficit of trust, “the rumor mill kicks into high gear and feeds an underground factory where people use a mix of facts and rumors to manufacture preemptively negative judgments in accordance with their worst fears.”

Savvy managers can defuse these fears by helping individuals carefully inspect the cognitive processes that produce those baleful conclusions—what McQuade and Ilves term an individual’s internal “judgment factory.” When confronted by an employee’s negative and preemptory judgment, a manager needs to (1) avoid debating the judgment; (2) work to uncover the data that was used to reach that judgment; (3) delve into the inference process; and (4) help the employee pressure test the conclusion by sharing additional data or suggesting other interpretations. The goal isn’t to persuade someone that they’ve reached the wrong conclusion, but to help them understand how their judgment factory led them to a particular point of view.

This tool for “collective reflection” is a simple but powerful hack of our all-too-human reactions.

***

Moonshot:  Taking the Work out of Work

Tongal: A 21st-century model for finding top talent and putting them to work on things they love

A story by James De Julio

What’s the most valuable asset of a creative business? Super-talented employees? Not according to James De Julio of Tonga, a start-up that crowd-sources the production of TV and online advertising. Like Topcoder, its counterpart in the software industry, Tongal is built around three assumptions.  First, the world is filled with creative people.  Second, it’s hard to predict who’s going to come up with the next great idea.  And third, you don’t have to hire the most creative folks to get them to work for you.

Tongal deconstructs client projects into bite-size pieces and then runs contests where registered members compete to come up with the best advertising pitch or shoot the most compelling piece of video. Contest finalists get a cash prize and a share of any cash that is awarded to others who build on their work. While the winners are chosen by a panel of judges, members also get to vote on the best submissions—a process that pits the judges’ picks against the “wisdom of the crowd.”

The opt-in model of work being pioneered by Tongal and others gives everyone a chance to join “the creative class.” What matters to Tongal is not who you know, where you earned your credentials or the depth of your portfolio. What matters is your ability to create great content. Another small win for meritocracy—and a win for Tongal’s clients who get to buy the best work for less.

***

Getting Rid of the Busy Work so You Can Get to Work

A story by Jordan Cohen

Knowledge workers are supposed to generate and apply knowledge—but most spend a chunk of every day screwing around with PowerPoint, fumbling with spreadsheets, diving for data or transcribing meeting notes. It’s these sort of mind-numbing activities that make work feel like work.

Pfizer’s Jordan Cohen recognized the absurdity of forcing seriously clever folks to spend part of every day doing the work of a junior clerk. In an attempt to document the waste, he asked a group of colleagues to track their work over a six-month period. The study revealed Pfizer’s highly trained employees were spending between 20-40% of their time on low-value activities. Why couldn’t Pfizer’s employees offshore tedious work in the same way the company offshored basic back office functions?

This simple question led to pfizerWorks, a one-click, 24/7 solution that allows knowledge workers to “support-source” tedious work from their desktop—without asking anyone else for permission.  Here’s how Cohen describes the process:

“When an employee needs help with a task or a project, they simply click the pfizerWorks icon on their Outlook tool bar. The employee populates a request form with project details and attaches supporting documents. The “submit” button sends the work to a partner who responds with a follow up phone call within an hour to make certain they understand the scope of work to be done.”

In the first year, the program saved nearly 70,000 hours of time that would otherwise have been lost to busy work. Just as inspiring, Cohen offers up a model for aspiring management innovators everywhere: he developed a serious hack around one of the most persistent flaws in the design of work on his own initiative while managing a full-time day job—and made a remarkable system-wide impact in short order.

* * *

So now, dear readers, I need your help.  What do you think of the MIX?  Poke around athackmanagement.com and let me know. What else should we be doing to provide a platform for management innovators and lots of great fodder for would-be renegades?  How do we make the MIX better?

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