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Haste makes waste

When managers have worked hard to develop complex plans, and then even harder to get them approved for execution, they sometimes become a little over-eager to cross the starting line. Impatience at the prospect of any further delay sets in.

No need to brief-up the employees on this. The plan is management-stuff anyway – above their pay-grade – the staff’s relationship to it is only to do the designated work. Explaining it all to them would take still more time, quite possibly just create confusion, and – heaven forfend – might even produce yet more unanticipated criticisms and the attendant additional delays. Why invite trouble? Let’s just get this train out of the station. The employees can deal with their specific instructions, and we in management will keep everything on the tracks.

Ever hear anything like that? It might even call to mind a dynamic, forceful headquarters, humming with creativity and bustling with managerial activity, receiving reports and immediately issuing decisive, no-nonsense orders – on top of things, in charge of events.

But the further away you get from HQ the more mechanical, even plodding – even disconnected – the scene becomes. From driving to driven, from energized to enervated.

Actually, while the headquarters of the most effective organizations I’ve seen certainly radiate energy and purpose, that radiation gains in force as it emanates throughout the organization, transforming into energetic and purposeful activity. The center is focused, but calmly alert. The operating units are galvanized; they are fully engaged and bustling. All know where the train is going and all are working together to keep it on the tracks.

What might account for the difference between such organizations?

Perspective. Where it is present, activity is biased toward integration and collaboration, toward mission accomplishment.

Conceptually, it’s simple: management has informed the workers of the import of their work, and continues to do so of its impact on progress.

In practice, it can require as much perseverance and dedication as any managerial task – and certainly return as much or more on the investment.

It is useful for managers to look at this issue from two, well . . . perspectives:

  1. Organizational mission
  2. Organizational design

And we will do the same over the next few posts. See you next week!

Actual work

The previous series looked at the many fallacies in the unfortunate concept of individual leadership in organizations. This current series is intended to take a closer look at the actual role of management in them.

We began by posing our broad definition of management as “the development of organizational objectives and the identification and deployment of resources to accomplish them.” Now, let’s break that down a bit.

To begin with, we should note that inherent in any activity or role undertaken by management is the responsibility for execution and, of course, decision-making. These should be seen as permeating everything we will discuss subsequently. Nothing managers do can be allowed to drift irretrievably to the abstract; choices must be made and implemented. We will have occasion to revisit this periodically throughout this discussion.

Consider, then, the following as principle functions of the modern manager:

  • Operations
  • Perspective
  • Information
  • Communication
  • Integration
  • Maintenance of responsibility

For our purposes here, we will use the first item to cover everything that is widely agreed to fall within the ambit of management responsibility. To be sure, this is not to join the ranks of those who are dismissive of these – far from it. However, since our focus in these pages happens to be on the role of management over organizational leadership, we’re going to direct our attention mostly to that.

The remainder of the items above will help us in this effort. Please observe, though, that this is not presented only as a list of functions specifically for the management of organizational leadership. It is intended quite plainly as a delineation of the primary, core functions of management generally. As we proceed along them we will discuss why.

Perhaps the most interesting of these functions is the first one we’ll cover – perspective.

So, we’ll see you next week, for some hopefully intriguing perspectives on management (and, yes, the management of leadership) . . .

Constructive co-dependence

We noted last week that organizations cannot and do not come in to existence in order to provide for the benefit of their employees. Indeed, throughout the forthcoming discussion we will want to keep clearly before us the fact that organizations of the sort we are concerned with here are established to accomplish specifically stated large aims – not merely to assemble numbers of people together for the simple purpose of visiting one or another visionary utopia on them. There is, surely, nothing inherently wrong with caring about and for your staff. Just remember that that isn’t the reason for which they were brought together.

So, let’s turn for a moment to the question of how we reconcile the apparent conflict between the organizational mission being the managerial priority, and the welfare of the staff being secondary to that – per the military’s fundamental maxim about the relationship of command to the organization, which we’ve been using to drive this discussion over the past few weeks.

On the face of it, we might be forgiven for assuming, as many do, that an apparently heartless focus on purpose to the cost of the welfare of the staff would set up strongly unproductive – even destructive – dynamics within the organization. In fact, probably many of us can testify to having seen precisely those dynamics in a number of such heartless outfits.

Why, then, does this not seem to be the general case in the military? Far from it; as we’ve noted, the military is widely regarded as firmly dedicated to the welfare of its members, even as all of them, the members included, acknowledge the supremacy of the mission.

As it turns out, in such environments these “irreconcilable” instincts don’t merely inexplicably coexist – they actually reinforce each other. Moreover, they tend to do so vigorously and positively.

Let’s review the situation, then: in our daily work lives, just as in the military, a concern for the welfare of employees that is systemically equated with or elevated above – sometimes even divorced from – the welfare of the organization that employs them can lead to the degradation or even the demise of that organization. This routinely results in reductions in compensation – or even in unemployment – for the putative beneficiaries of the misplaced managerial solicitation. Unrealistic utopian ambition inevitably leaves very real dysptopian misery in its wake.

On the other hand, accomplishment of organizational goals surely can be jeopardized by the outright negligence of employee welfare.

So, back we go to the question we eagerly want to believe must be answered in the affirmative: shouldn’t we put employees first to help ensure we have a loyal, motivated workforce for pursuing organizational goals?

Which in turn brings us right back to the inescapable fact we must soberly and frankly acknowledge: if you fail to focus sufficiently on your mission you risk failing to accomplish it, thus jeopardizing the health – or, even, the existence – of your organization. How good is that for your employees?

And the only way to avoid hopelessly repeating this dialogue is to pose the question that really needs answering: how do you resolve the apparent conflict in the organization-first maxim?

Here’s a brief go at the answer (there will be some elaboration of this subsequently in this series): what you do for your employees, you do in order to help them better contribute to the accomplishment of organizational goals. This starts most obviously with equipping and training them, but can also extend into many quasi-“enlightened” practices ranging from health and retirement programs to on-site exercise facilities, day-care centers, and the like. The key is to be sure you justify (not rationalize) and design such programs with regard to how they provide a net positive contribution by employees to organizational goals.

You will find that it takes little managerial effort to help your employees fully appreciate the connection between these efforts – which might previously have seemed oddly disconnected, if not downright conflicting – and henceforth to support their reciprocal strengthening of the organization as a whole

So, let’s be sure we have that right: organizational goals are first; employee welfare comes second.

By organizing the latter, within the limits of your organizational resources, to support staff ability and efforts to accomplish the former, management helps ensure a healthy organization within which the employees can find both fulfilling work and the means to care for themselves and their families.

That is, the former tells you how to, and disciplines your efforts as you, go about the latter.

But once the focus shifts from the organization’s net benefit, under whatever guise, to employee welfare in its own independent right, you place not just the organization in jeopardy, but the object of your misplaced attentions as well.

Okay, enough of that. Next we’ll offer an outline of the remainder of this series, which I hope you’ll find intriguing.

See you next week . . .

Mutual assured destruction

As we prepare to turn to our discussion of what managers really do in organizations, we have found it useful over the past few weeks to first try to broadly clarify what it is, indeed, that organizations do.

In “Managing Leadership” I wrote that it is generally ill-advised for civilian managers to look to military commanders as models for their own behavior (this caution applies especially to their misuse as guides to the pseudo-practice of “individual leadership”). While there are many significant reasons for this, they are beyond the scope of this discussion, so we will confine ourselves here to noting that they revolve around the exceptional and profoundly unique factors that drive a military commander’s thinking and behavior – factors which do not exist outside the military sphere.

As it happens, though, many of these reasons are also precisely those that make military organizations especially well-suited for such examination. And in that spirit we have been looking at the foundation military maxim regarding the relationship between command and organizational purpose: the commander’s primary responsibility is to the mission, and only secondarily to the welfare of the troops.

We observed last week that civilian organizations, particularly since 1960, have developed a concern for the welfare of their employees that may, at first glance, appear to be stronger than this maxim would suggest is the case in the military. And yet, as we’ve also noted, dedication to the welfare of the troops is universally acknowledged as an almost omnipresent force in the military, felt from every direction and at every point, even as all units and their members firmly acknowledge that it does, indeed, come second to mission accomplishment.

So, how do we put all of that together into something that makes sense at all, much less that we can use to help drive our conversation about the real role of managers in civilian organizations?

The answer is really simplicity itself: organizations cannot and do not come in to existence in order to provide for the benefit of their employees. If they attempt to, the effort will inevitably be exposed as fundamentally unsustainable and will fail both their own and their staff’s interests.

Oddly – and sadly – enough, even the military is often pressured to get this the wrong way round, But in the end the fact must be honestly confronted that the military operates in an environment where idle fantasy is an early casualty. Ideas about how to organize and operate military units gain no traction from how “progressive” or “enlightened” they might be deemed by those consumed by such things. These ideas are subjected to a relentless and unforgiving triage process that weeds out the nonsense without delay, without ceremony, and without a second thought.

What survives is what works. What works is what is employed. And much of that has stood the test of time impressively enough – some, in fact, for millennia. One of those is the maxim that the commander’s first responsibility is to the unit’s mission, and only secondarily to the welfare of the unit’s troops.

So, again: how do we put the two together?

What we’re going to see is that these two instincts are not really inconsistent at all, but are actually intensely mutually reinforcing. We will look at that next week.

Thanks for stopping by – hope to see you again soon . . .

Mutual incomprehension

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been referring to a central military maxim, fundamentally relevant to our purposes as well, which states that the commander’s first responsibility is to his mission, and only his second is to his troops. We noted that military organizations are characterized by the organizational reconciliation of these two instincts which, on the face of it, seem inherently irreconcilable.

As we turn to this topic, let’s begin by acknowledging that much of what passes for “enlightened” human resources theory in the modern era consists of, or has its genesis in, the awakening of management to the significance of the presence of workers in the organization as an important factor influencing its operation. As plain as this might seem today, it in fact was a long, difficult, lumbering emergence from somnolence. It can be traced from the Hawthorne Experiments of the late 1920s to the publication of Douglas McGregor’s “The Human Side of Enterprise” in 1960.

This period began with a kind of bemused astonishment to discover that workers even existed as a separate, sentient group with its own interests and stakes in the welfare of the organization. It ended with McGregor’s plea for management to involve the workforce in the fate of the organization, which unleashed the modern age of thinking about how best to do that. It must be recalled, though, that McGregor also thought that, in pursuing this effort, management would (and should) be helping raise the level of workers both intellectually and morally.

That element of his thinking – on the one hand a product of the age in which he conceived it and, on the other hand, peculiarly out of touch with reality even then – has attained an unfortunate prominence in much of the work which followed. The twin pillars of its decidedly unhelpful influence consist in its presumption of the inherent superiority (intellectually, morally – generally) of management over the worker “class” and the patronizing approach it supposes is appropriate for the former to adopt toward the later.

Is there a relation of some unpleasant sort between this presumption of superiority and “noblesse oblige” on the part of management over workers, and the military maxim’s consignment of troops to the leftover attention commanders might be able to spare them after looking after the mission? McGregor’s thinking suggests that managers should be evangelically solicitous of the welfare of workers, and the military maxim argues that commanders should only even consider them after more important matters have been attended to. But both appear to place the workers/troops in a secondary category, passively subject to the whim of management/command to even deign to acknowledge their existence.

Yet, as we noted last week, the widely recognized standard for military units is that they are genuinely and exceptionally concerned with the welfare of their troops, even as they (troops included) acknowledge that the mission comes first.

Is there a connection between these apparently opposing ideas that actually strengthens both – the mission and the welfare of the troops? Is there something in that connection that might speak to the often condescending concern for workers conspicuously verbalized by civilian management in the post-Hawthorne/McGregor era?

Indeed there is. And that’s next week’s topic – see you then!