March 24, 2010
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January 28, 2009
Detroit’s real challenge? Making products customers care about.
Of course America’s car-makers were going to get a bail-out. They employ millions, both directly and indirectly, and are facing an unprecedented collapse in demand. While individual members of Congress could stand on principle secure in the knowledge they wouldn’t be held personally accountable for starving a vital industry of desperately needed liquidity, President Bush couldn’t so easily sidestep his responsibility for the consequences of inaction. Hence the $17.4 billion loan package.
In my last two posts I nominated a dozen business books that point us towards the future of management—a world in which formal structures have given way to flexible networks, where hierarchies have been at least partially supplanted by internal markets, where decision-making rights have been broadly distributed, and where the distinction between employees and managers has mostly disappeared.
The world is inundated with mediocre business books pedaling the same old threadbare nostrums. There are rare exceptions, though—books that telescope the future or send our minds racing down new tracks. Last week I nominated half a dozen tomes that have shaped my thinking about the future of management. This week, you’ll find a list of six more that can help us escape the greased grooves of conventional management thinking.
Small Pieces Loosely Joined, by David Weinberger, 2002.
I hate reading business books. Most are tedious DIY guides that tell you how to keep your customers happy, grow the top line, be a better leader, motivate your employees, find a new strategy, or manage change. Nothing wrong with this if your goal is to wring another few drops of performance out of your overly bureaucratized organization or cure your chronic insomnia. If, on the other hand, you want to build a genuine performance advantage, you’ll need to read stuff that’s a lot more radical; books that will hammer away at the carapace of your unshakeable beliefs, that are filled with ideas your competitors would regard as irrelevant or utopian.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the Management 1.0 practices found in most companies strangle innovation, frustrate collaboration, curtail ambition, undermine loyalty, and stymie adaptation. That’s why I’ve spent the last several years struggling to free myself from the straitjacket of management orthodoxy.
There isn’t a sport on the planet that delivers less adrenaline per unit of time than golf. For years, that simple fact kept me off the links. When compared to hurling myself down a black diamond ski run or diving on a wreck, the idea of spending the better part of a day struggling to propel a small round object toward a pint-sized hole, with a device ill-suited to the task, seemed to me both pointless and effete.
Yet there I was last week, hacking my way around two of the most extravagantly beautiful golf courses on the planet: Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers both of which have views across the Pacific from New Zealand’s North Island. And now I’m off to join a week-long golf orgy in Palm Springs—an annual event where the violent slash of my golf swing will once again be the subject of amusement and sarcasm: “Next time, see if you can slow it down to a blur.”
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.
In Part One of this posting, I argued that the Web has the power to turn management-as-usual inside out. Now let’s consider five of the built-in “design flaws” that limit the performance of traditional bureaucratic organizations, and imagine briefly how the Web might help forward-thinking companies to overcome these deficits.
Design flaw #1: Share of voice equals share of power. In hierarchically arranged companies, the farther down employees sit in the organization, or the more unconventional their views, the harder it is for them to get a hearing. In contrast, the views of senior executives are often assigned a lofty “coefficient of credibility” simply because those folks sit higher up in the hierarchy.
Over the last decade, the Internet has dramatically transformed the world of business. It has enabled real-time, globe-spanning supply lines, 24/7 customer service, and the digital distribution of many products and services. It has reduced the costs of coordination across geographic and organizational boundaries, and made it easier for companies to arbitrage wage costs via outsourcing and off-shoring. Just as significantly, the Web has allowed a swarm of upstarts to circumvent long-standing entry barriers in industries as diverse as publishing, music, travel, retailing, and insurance. Whether it’s incumbent companies overhauling old operating models, or newcomers blowing up time-worn business models, the Internet’s impact on business has been pervasive and profound.
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.
It’s hard to imagine how something that has changed so little over the past few decades—in this case, the hierarchical, bureaucratic management system that governs life in large organizations—might change dramatically in the years to come. Nevertheless, a while back my friend Tom Stewart, the editor of
Harvard Business Review, and I posted the following question online:
Looking twenty years out into the future, what one characteristic—principle, practice, or structural feature—of the “modern” industrial organization will appear to be the most antiquated or anachronistic?
Over the course of a few weeks, we received more than one hundred responses from managers around the world.
Comments came from folks working in big multinationals like Dell, Philips, Infosys, Whirlpool, ArcelorMittal and Citi, as well as from individuals working in smaller companies and start-ups.