The implications of the coronavirus pandemic are and will be profound for individuals, organizations, and society at large. One of the casualties few will shed a tear for will be the demise of what can only be described as old-school management practices.
In his fabulous video from a few years ago, “Reinventing the Technology of Human Accomplishment,” Dr. Gary Hamel raised the idea that perhaps we were at the end of management. While he projected optimism with management innovation likely to occur at the fringes, he cited examples of prior-era approaches to managing and leading still present in our world. In engagements over the past year, I’ve encountered a variety of these outdated management practices suggested by Dr. Hamel, including:
Annual planning as a budgeting exercise—no real strategy
Myopic, industry-only views to the world—no consideration for outside forces
Rigid policies and biases against remote work—a supervision mentality
Complex processes that slow product development—a cost orientation that assumes ideas are guilty until proven innocent
Complex decision-making processes that hold groups hostage—control first at the expense of action thinking
Lack of tangible workforce development—a view of education as cost and not potential benefit
Organization structures that perpetuate siloed thinking and stifle collaboration
Performance evaluation practices that must make Deming spin in his grave
Lack of transparency on firm finances and direction—a “too much knowledge is a bad thing” mentality from the top
While many firms have toyed with different aspects of modernizing their approaches to managing, unless they’ve faced an existential threat, the old ways perpetuate. Now that every firm in every industry is dealing with survival, it’s time to let those old ways give way to the new at a breakneck pace.
Five Management Practices that Will Change Forever
1. Remote Work for Knowledge Workers will Become the Norm
As the pandemic pushes people to their homes to work, there’s a revelation that keeping knowledge workers cohabiting in expensive, sterile, germ-filled workspaces isn’t so critical. Yes, people miss the social aspects, and some things are still best done in live settings. However, the virtual world is pretty efficient and effective.
Having led firms and units in technology for several decades, the resistance some firms and managers have to remote work has always been a head-scratcher. People don’t write better code or develop more effective marketing campaigns because they are housed in tiny cubicles within feet of each other. The collaboration and conferencing tools on the market today offer real-time access to each other, improved ideation opportunities, and mercifully, they can be tuned-out when it’s time to create.
The final barriers to remote work are melting because they have to in this crisis. Don’t expect them to return post-pandemic, regardless of management’s belief that people have to be supervised or they can’t be trusted.
2. Collaboration and Innovation Practices Will Become More Entrepreneurial
Organizations everywhere are facing the need to jettison rigid, slow, processes that stifle innovation in favor of what I term, duct-tape or entrepreneurial approaches where the pursuit of elegance and completeness give way to just-good-enough thinking.
Management approaches must support processes that move ideas to rapid prototyping and market testing, and then into the market. Instead of long market studies, innovation teams will tap into those on the front lines and those who know customers and markets best. Collaboration will involve customers, partners, and sometimes firms we might view as fringe competitors. And, internally, the silo walls that stifle cross-functional collaboration will come down with leaner, flatter organizational structures.
3. Transparency on Risks and Finances is Expected
If there’s one lesson we can all relate to, in times of crisis, we need to be informed. Lack of timely, complete information creates anxiety and induces panic.
While crisis conditions hopefully won’t last beyond a few months, the need for transparent, timely information won’t suddenly end. If you’re a manager in a firm that is stingy sharing financial information, you’re making a profound mistake. People do their best work when they have context for the situation and for how their work impacts the bigger picture.
We’re entering the era where it will be the norm to over-share versus face the implications of under-sharing. A firm’s associates will demand and expect clear visibility into strategy and overall performance. Gone are the days where people will blindly ply their trades while hoping the organization is faring OK in the market.
4. Strengthening Decision-Making Muscles Will Become a Thing
I’m consistently amazed at how little time organizations and managers spend on helping associates and teams strengthen decision-making skills. When was the last time you attended a program on improving as a decision-maker?
The essence of managing is decision-making, yet, we chronically under-invest in teaching people to make better decisions. The oft-heard phrase, “We make data-driven decisions” is nice. Let me know that you’ve fixed your data problems first.
Improving decision-making effectiveness requires managers to lean out processes and educate employees on framing and the impact of cognitive biases. Strengthening in this critical area also demands a commitment to continuous measurement and improvement.
One critical measure of effective decision-making is speed. The absence of a decision holds people and teams hostage. It’s time to let the hostages go by leaning out and decentralizing most decisions, and most of all, teaching people how to get better at this critical activity.
5. The Supervision Mentality Will Be Replaced by a Coaching Approach
If you need to supervise people to make sure they do the work, your system is broken on so many levels. You’ve either hired wrong, or your managers lack the ability to teach, train, and allow people to take control of their work. Importantly, it’s not the label of supervisor I’m focused on as much as the mentality that we need supervision. What we truly need is coaching plus education.
Research by the late J. Richard Hackman and others shows that coaching is a critical component of helping teams perform at a high level. Observation, feedback, and support work much better than someone glowering at people while holding a metaphorical stop-watch in their hand to make certain there’s no let-up in performance. A coach builds and strengthens individuals and groups and is an essential part of management moving forward.
While just scratching the surface of the management processes that must and will change in a new era, don’t under-estimate how difficult it will be to let the old practices go. Senior leaders will need to prioritize “modernizing the management system” and education and coaching will be essential for bringing new approaches to life. As digitization takes hold and AI emerges, these practices must continue to evolve at light-speed.
The Bottom Line for Now:
There are no words to simplify the pain and costs accruing from this unfolding tragedy. However, we must persevere and once again prove how capable we are of surmounting the obstacles in front of us. Of all the human-made obstacles, old-line management approaches that no longer fit this era or environment must melt away quickly before they prolong our economic and human pain.
By Art Petty