The Art of Managing series is dedicated to exploring the critical issues we face in guiding our firms and teams to success in today’s volatile world.
My Dad often reminds me during our various build or fix projects that, “There’s no substitute for the right tool.”
While I’m comfortable with my typical selection of the Big-3 (hammer, screwdriver and adjustable wrench) for most projects, Dad travels with a well-stocked toolbox filled with all manner of shiny, unique tools designed for very specific challenges. He takes particular pride in going to just the perfect tool for a sticky project situation and then applying it skillfully to solve the problem.
He’s right of course. He can fix or build anything and the workmanship is great. My improvement projects are a bit more “triage-like” in their appearance and function.
Dad’s constant reminder of the right tool for the situation fits in management as well.
Too often, managers trot out their own variation of their “Big 3” with approaches such as S.W.O.T analysis, template-type strategy frameworks, multi-year forecasting models, cascading goal planning, a project team or 360-degree feedback and others (insert your firm’s standard issue tools here), when the situation calls for something very different.
Most of the tools of management were conceived in an era characterized by a great deal of consistency and predictability…two attributes in short supply today. We’re living and working in an era of complexity…characterized by uncertainty and ambiguity and we need new tools to help us successfully navigate through the fog and around the many unknown risks lurking just out of sight.
In addition to the tactical templates and instruments referenced above that offer little help in making sense out of complexity born by constant change, much of our larger workplace environment…our superstructure (think hierarchical, siloed organizational structure) seems and feels anachronistic in a world where speed and adaptability are much more important than top-down driven efficiency.
Zappos has been in the news recently for their attempt to eliminate all managers from their organization. Coverage of their experimentation with holacracy seems to end up more on the negative/scoffing/it’s doomed side, and while this reductionist technique doesn’t “feel quite right” to me, it’s an interesting attempt to re-think the organizational superstructure and supporting tools. This experiment bears watching. (As I’m reading McCullough’s excellent new book, The Wright Brothers, it serves us all to remember that most of the people experimenting with flight were widely lampooned in the press and in society during that era.)
Whether holacracy becomes a useful tool or not, there are less revolutionary but potentially effective approaches for structuring and teaming in our organizations. Managers are well-served to study McChrystal’s “Team of Teams” content in his recent book. Sadly, the experience gained in today’s form of combat is highly applicable to our approach to managing and structuring and leading in a complex, fast-changing world.
The article, “Strategy Under Uncertainty,” at McKinsey, does a great job of describing why various tools and management approaches work or do not apply depending upon the level of complexity you are experiencing in your industry. I see the logic suggested in this article violated regularly as executives and management teams attempt to corral complexity into their world-view…which is of course based on experience gained in a different era. The most common violation is the attempt to plot an “Escape Velocity” strategy…a move into new markets or businesses by leveraging the same multi-year planning model used for the very mature businesses. While there are few certainties in life or business, this approach is certain to fail.
My encouragement is to diversify your toolkit with new approaches and ideas for translating external noise and complexity into ideas, insights and intelligent experiments. It’s likely you will need to craft some of your own tools in the process.
Teams and firms winning in this world are creating approaches that emphasize translation of external noise into relentless focus on simple but not simplistic questions such as: what does this mean for us/our customers/our competitors? How might this disrupt our business model? How can we innovate with more than just technology? How can we move faster from experimentation to monetization? And many others.
Effective managers are pushing the development of perceptual acuity…attempting to see around corners, with their teams. They’re inviting customers to the team…crossing boundaries within their organizations to develop a broader perspective and going outside of their firms and even their customer groups to see what’s happening in environments radically different…but where they are tackling analogous issues.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Yes, I know…these are big, lofty and abstract thoughts that seem easy to write and that don’t fit with your need to prepare that next 3-year plan …or get ready for the once per year strategy offsite (a convention that must die…strategy is an all-the-time activity). Yet, the warning signs of creative destruction are all around us with the daily changing fortunes of long-standing and new firms. Outgoing Cisco CEO, John Chambers, stared at his customers at their annual conference the other day and suggested that 40% of them wouldn’t exist in a material way in 10 years.
It’s time to rethink everything, including the tools we use to manage and plan for our very uncertain futures. There is no substitute for the right tool. Sometimes, you simply have to create that tool.
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