With a single line of code we can remove a misbehaving application from a computer and – theoretically – restore normal operations. Too bad there is nothing like that for the workplace.
A widely held misbelief is that anytime people get together for a common goal, there must be some form of structure and organization put in place to ensure the goal is actually met. In most companies that takes the form of a bewildering variety of processes ostensibly to provide transparency to management and a proper chain of command for getting things done. At the end of the day, however, the actual result tends to be the creation of a culture of indecisiveness and a collection of disengaged people who are focused most often on the wrong goal.
Worse yet, the desire to instill organization manifests itself in the form of multiple layers of management and in fact, the consideration of the theory of management as a discipline. On a small scale – your company – as well as on the larger scale – our nation – we prove time and again that we just flat out are no good at management yet we continue to inflict it on each other perhaps as some sort of punishment.
Most organizations are structured as some sort of pyramid-scheme like monarchy with each subsequent downward layer holding less and less power. At each level of the pyramid the power for that level is generally shared across committees and review boards, infinite email chains and endless “walk and talks”. We put people into these layers based not on their ability to achieve the common goal but rather on how much of the process they have mastered when compared to others. At the upper end of the pyramid the senior managers occasionally realize that a change is necessary, so they look to outside candidates to “shake things up” – which inevitably leads to a small scale makeover to get the layers immediately below the new “mover and shaker” to look suspiciously like the company they just came from. Those lower in the pyramid only hope they are able to ride the ripple of change.
Look, I am not against organization or process. At some level both are a necessity. But if a little is good, then a lot must be better so we go overboard in creating processes and assigning people to manage the process rather than the business. In this way we make the result – the success of our business – a slave to process rather than the process serving the result.
When we seek to define a business process we look to put structure around a task and by doing so to reduce the amount of “politics” it takes to accomplish the task. To define the process, we should (but almost never actually do) create an expiration date or a dependent clause that says the process is no longer necessary. Because the end is never considered, most companies have in place policies and procedures that live on forever even though their usefulness died a long time ago. As a result, the undead nature of the “way things are” causes an amplification of politics within a company, which in turn creates turfs and even more restriction.
So, by considering the end game when defining a policy we can create useful ones – and by that I mean a policy which serves a purpose and then quietly goes away when no longer necessary. Because we have to think of the day when this will no longer be in place (and actually spell out when that would be), it spurs us to think of alternatives to introducing that level of structure while at the same time empowering the people in our organization to make decisions for the common good. And that spells engagement.
How do we solve the managerial crisis, though? One interesting way would be to take a page from our own history. Representational management. As a group within a company (a business unit, department or whatever you want to call the functional collection of people), we empower that group to elect for a period of time their own manager.
That could possibly lead to popularity contests, so how about the idea of promotion on a trial basis? The people who report to him/her have the right, ability – and responsibility – to reverse the promotion if the manager does not perform. By shifting the power base from the manager to the staff you create an environment where the manager works for the staff, most likely by removing obstacles from their path – meaning obsolete and antiquated processes.
Some of this is possible on a small scale within an organization. By taking the lead in such a responsive way, a manager could establish a pattern of success within the unit which is visible to other teams and units within the company. Those higher in the pyramid can see tangible results, and the higher this visibility extends into the pyramid, the less likely the example of a high-performing minority would be ignored. At the top of the pyramid those in charge will actively look for ways to make the minority the majority.
Radical ideas for sure. In a day where many companies are giving lip service to culture change, perhaps ideas whose time may not be here yet but is soon to be. Change is coming, and hopefully we can be the ones issuing the Process.Kill command rather than the target of it.