Managers change how people behave; leaders change how people think. No matter what economy we’re in or how a company is structured, the need for management and leadership will never go away. What will change are how we manage and how we lead, as well as the tools we use to perform those functions in a better and more efficient way.In a recent article by Stephen Denning, “A Leader’s Guide to Radical Management of Continuous Innovation,” he describes a new workplace—one that eliminates the familiar components of traditional management, including hierarchy, command-and-control, tightly planned work, standardized HR practices, growth strategies based on the experience curve and market share, and process and product innovation driven by incremental technological improvements. Keeping this old workplace model, he says, leads to under-performance, disgruntled workers, and frustrated customers, especially in environments of rapid change that require continuous adaptation.
As such, he calls for companies to adopt a new management style, one he calls “Radical Management.” A few hallmarks of this workplace and management style include forming small cross-functional teams that are empowered to manage themselves, doing work in client-driven iterations aimed at continuous innovation, and engaging in total openness where everyone levels with everyone else.
While such a workplace and management style has merit, it also takes a lot of discipline and focus to implement successfully. Over the years, many companies have attempted to flatten their organizations, put everyone in cross-functional teams, and promote open communication. And for the most part, the attempts have failed…often from the start.
Does that mean that this management style has no merit in today’s companies? Of course not. But to make it work the way Denning describes, you need to better understand human nature and take advantage of some new communication tools.
In today’s world, technology is not limiting us as much as humans and human nature are. Fiefdoms, egos, and the ‘protect and defend’ mentality are alive and strong. Rather than most people embracing change, they continue to feel threatened by it. All of these things are part of our human nature and here to stay; however, in today’s world of rapid technological change, it is now important to get over them fast.
The fact is that consultants can come up with all sorts of radical ideas. And if we weren’t dealing with a bunch of humans, the ideas would work great. But when you take a group of people, whether they be kids, managers, employees, executives, homemakers, or anything else, and put them in a room to focus on a project, one thing is bound to happen: people’s natural tendencies emerge. You quickly see the “spot” everyone is destined to fill.
In other words, some people are born to lead, some are born to manage, some are born to follow, some are born to execute, some are born to be visionary…the list goes on. Despite what the Declaration of Independence may say, we aren’t all created equal. We all have different innate talents and abilities. We can’t expect a group of followers to suddenly start leading themselves, just as we can’t expect a group of leaders to take a backseat and willingly follow.
Therefore, to make what Dennig described as a radical management style really work, there are some fundamentals we must understand. We first have to accept human nature for what it is, and we have to acknowledge that we simply can’t change it. The pecking order will still exist even when you take away the functional names and the hierarchy. People who have worked their way up through the career ladder, only to discover that the ladder no longer exists, will be slow to embrace the change. In addition, the ladder remains even though you no longer define the steps.
So can we be radical? Yes. But realize there is still going to be a need for leadership, for visionaries, for people who can execute, and for the worker bees. There is still a need for roles and role definition. Someone still has to manage the projects because projects simply don’t manage themselves.
Case in point: You can put a group of bright, young entrepreneurs together who come from a variety of backgrounds and skill sets and tell them that you want to create growth and change. While they will certainly do some good things, because of their lack of experience, they will also do all sorts of wrong or ineffective things. After all, they are young. Similarly, you can put a group of Baby Boomers together and give them the same directive. Chances are they won’t think out of the box enough and will miss many opportunities. They’ll make mistakes too. But get both groups together, and you may just hit your mark. Diversity has always been a strength, because in the differences among people is where the magic is. However, you have to both lead and manage the magic.
One of the first ways to overcome the human nature factor is to look at what you’re rewarding. Humans will always repeat whatever behavior they’ve been rewarded for. Unfortunately, many companies reward negative behavior. For example, many call centers reward their customer service reps for taking a high number of calls and keeping call times down, yet this often leads to the reps trying to get people off the phone as quickly as possible, and not giving the customer the level of service or help they require. So the representative is rewarded on essentially poor customer service and potentially a destroyed customer relationship.
Therefore, before embarking with a radical management style, think about how you are structuring the reward system to make this new workplace work. You can’t keep the old reward structure, as it’s rooted in traditional management practices—the very thing you want to get away from. Unfortunately, most people don’t like to change the reward structure because it’s political. Yet, if you decide to keep the old reward structure but change to the radical management practices, you’re setting yourself up for failure. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why companies don’t succeed at new initiatives. They come up with new ideas and tools but they don’t change the reward structure, and then they wonder why they keep getting the old behaviors—the very behaviors they want to change.