As the nature of work continues to shift from physical to mental activity, the fundamental challenge for advancing management into the 21st-century is to shift from “reduce variation practices” to “embrace variation practices.”
The history of management during the industrial revolution was one of extraordinary success controlling organizations, processes, and supply chains of dramatically increasing complexity. Companies have been very successful in reducing variability and structuring processes for increased repeatability and stability. While specific tools for reducing variability such as Six Sigma, ISO processes, and Total Quality Leadership were invented, the impact of the reducing variability paradigm extended into word choice, conversational patterns, and how meetings were run.
This can be also thought of as the age of "doing" where the primary objective of management has been to get people to "do" their jobs. This usually involved getting workers to follow a prescribed set of instructions, ensuring repeatability and reducing variability in manufactured pieces.
Although these practices spawned tremendous wealth and success during the Industrial Revolution this is not what will drive success in the future.
The future lies with thinkers, and the companies that create environments for their people to contribute their maximum cognitive ability. We could say that the job of management in the new era will be to get people to "think" their jobs as opposed to “do” their jobs.
If the objective is to create environments for thinking the fundamental task of management is to embrace variability, not reduce variability. All innovation and create creativity comes from the variation, or diversity, in people's thinking. Reducing the variation of thinking results in having everyone think alike. This is stultifying and dehumanizing and it is the source of alienation for workers of the industrial revolution.
I learned this in a very stark and dramatic way as the captain of the nuclear powered submarine USS Santa Fe. I had been trained as a leader who was very good at getting people to do things and I was very good at doing what I was told. The objective of that leadership was to reduce variability and ensure procedural compliance. Typical practices included issuing specific instructions, “motivating” people, monitoring for compliance, and providing critical feedback.
I arrived as the captain of the USS Santa Fe after a short notice shift in assignment when the previous captain resigned. For a year I had been training to take command of a different submarine, and a different kind of submarine. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the prospect of commanding the Santa Fe put me in the very uncomfortable position of not knowing the intimate technical details of the ship that I was to command.
Nevertheless, as was the tradition, I gave orders and the crew followed them. Within two weeks I gave an order which was impossible to execute on this new submarine. It wasn't attempted, and nothing bad happened but initially one of my officers ordered it anyway.
That's when I got a stark realization of the perils of doing what you're told leadership.
I had made a mistake. I talked with my team about it and we came up with a novel solution. Traditionally, when the leader makes a mistake, we focus on two problems: first, that the leader made a mistake and second, that the followers didn’t speak up.
We decided fundamentally the problem would only be solved if I, the captain, stopped giving orders. That is what I agreed to do. For my team, their role was to stop asking permission and stop waiting to be told what to do. Instead, they used the words “I intend to…”
It is probably hard to picture a submarine, a ship, or a company where the captain or the CEO does not give orders. Yet this approach yielded a much stronger, resilient, and thinking organization. When I stopped giving orders my people needed to solve their own problems. As they struggled to do so, they developed their own leadership and decision making skills.
When bosses stop giving orders they become leaders because they encourage their people to come forward with their own thoughts and solutions to problems. Every time a boss tells a worker what to do, that boss is depriving that person from the opportunity to grow into a leader. It worked incredibly well. Not only did the performance of submarine improve dramatically but we created many more leaders – in this case 10 additional submarine commanders from the group of officers that served with me.
Bosses give orders and leaders give intent.
Since giving intent and letting my crew decide how best to achieve our goals resulted in different approaches and solutions, I was embracing variation in how we completed goals. When it came to specific tasks, such as starting up a motor or disassembling a pump we followed the procedure. These remained, and will remain, reduce variability tasks. However, we found that a significant portion of our success derived from our ability to embrace variation in thinking.
I now refer to this traditional style of leadership as leader – follower, where we divide the world into two groups of people: leaders who think and give instructions and workers (followers), whose job it is to follow the instructions (no thinking required).
Leadership happens in the nitty-gritty of how we talk to each other. So the problem is that our speech patterns, our turns of phrase, the way we run meetings, and the like are all based on a reduced variation mindset or paradigm. In order to embrace and embrace variation paradigm, each of these things need to be looked at carefully and totally revise.
Here's a start: recognize when your people are trying to get you to “tell them what to do” and resist it.
One of the tools you can use to help you recognize "tell me what to do" is using the Ladder of Leadership. Developed with Stephen Covey, the 7-rung ladder helps bosses and workers understand the power of communication as you give people control.
The first rung of the ladder is "tell me what to do" and the one we will focus on today. You job is to hear what "tell me what to do" sounds like (people often camouflage it) and resist the urge to tell them what to do. Instead, help them level up to where they are saying "I think..."
To learn more about the other 5 rungs, click here.
Here are three approaches to help someone level up:
- Change Perspective (put them in your seat)
- Fast Forward (imagine it's a date 6 months from now)
- Make the change small (talk about a part of the decision)
In workshops we role play this out with real life scenarios from companies we've worked and then have them write up their own scenarios.
Imagine you are a new Senior Vice President for Operations at the ABC Toy Company. You took over from a very top-down boss and want to get your people to "level up" the ladder.
You are responsible to producing and shipping your products. Your normal process is to include a quality inspection prior to shipping but this week's batch is coming off the line late and if you do the inspection you will have to airfreight the products incurring extra costs. If you skip the inspection, you can ship normal freight but risk sending a small number of defective toys out.
The line manager (we will call him the "worker") comes in to report the problem and discuss the decision you need to make: do you ship the toys to without going through product inspection or do the inspection and pay the extra costs?
Remember, we are going to have the worker play level 1. They have been told what to do for a long time and will stubbornly resist moving up. The conversation might go like this...
- Worker - Since we had to drop the machine for unexpected maintenance we are behind on a client's order. The current batch will come off the line 24 hours behind schedule.
[Notice, when the worker presents a problem without a solution, this is a camouflaged “tell me what to do.”]
- You: Ok, what are our options? [You will no doubt already realize that you have two main options but resist telling the worker. Let him or her express them.]
- Worker: Well, I don’t really know but if we do the inspection we are going to have to airfreight. That’s big bucks. I guess we could skip the inspection…? [Said hesitatingly]
- You: What do you think we should do?
- Worker: I don’t know. You are the boss, that’s what I think. [The worker is used to being told what to do and might not feel safe expressing their opinion.]
- You: Well, I want to know what you think. Let’s imagine I weren’t here and you had to make this decision yourself, tell me how you would think through which option were best.
- Worker: Well, if we don’t do the inspection …
You can play it out from here. If you are in an organization that has a long history of telling people what to do the first steps may take a while but as a leader, this is one of the most important things you can do for your people. Every time you take a decision from one of your people and decide for them, you are depriving them of the ability to grow into a leader.
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