For as long as organized work has been around, decision-making and interpretation of events have been the privilege of management:
- The lower levels implement work and report upwards.
- The higher levels interpret reports and impose decisions downwards.
This is how the pyramids were built and it is how most organizational pyramids build products still. In today’s times of exponential developments this organizational dogma is holding us back: There is an urgent need for quicker and more adaptive decisions and a growing complexity that makes it harder to communicate between management and workforce in a meaningful way. I’d like to illustrate the inherent problem by looking at running as a metaphor for work (because you can never have too many metaphors in organizational analysis):
Running is a popular activity enjoyed by lots of people. It’s healthy and an all-around positive thing – there is no considerable debate about whether running in general is good for you; the overwhelming consensus is that it can absolutely add value to your life if done right.
„Done right“ in this context usually means a choice of running shoes that fit well, a track suitable for your individual level of fitness and skill as well as ensuring there are no medical risks due to joint/limb problems or other health issues. Runners have no problem getting these things in line by themselves and consult a doctor for advice where necessary; they care about running and continuously improve their performance – because that’s just what happens when you keep doing something you like.
Enter management: Now add a person who takes over responsibility for running from the runners. This person – we’ll call them the running manager – doesn’t know who needs which shoes and it would be a lengthy and complex process for them to assess and accommodate individual runners’ strengths such as sprinting, long-distance running or an aptitude/weakness regarding inclines.
The runners themselves know these things, but they don’t have any kind of documentation to show. They’ve always just ran the way that works best, as determined by experience and the skill and intuition that come with it. They care about running, not reporting on running.
This won’t do for the running manager: His job is to assess individual and team performance so they can be aligned with overall running goals and reported to the higher-ups – in a way they can understand: Some of the top managers used to be runners but have been inactive for many years; some come from totally different areas of sport. There needs to be a simple objective standard in place to do this job.
So management decides on a specific running course that is to be used. Also, to „level the playing field“ (and to save money), shoes and other gear are standardized and ordered in bulk from a single supplier.
“Running performance” is subsequently measured by timing the runners’ laps on the specified course and reported to upper management by the running manager in the form of time sheets. Any drops in lap times are explained in a way that makes him look good at his job (because he needs to protect his job) and top management makes decisions on how to improve running performance based on those reports. These decisions are then conveyed back to the runners by the running manager who does so in a way he feels is best to achieve an outcome that makes his performance appear favorable (again, he needs something to show for himself).
No one in their right mind would ever consider such a system for running: Everyone can see it would be embarrassing to treat adults this way – and ridiculous to expect that running as an activity would improve or yield more benefits as a result.
Of course professional sports coaches do things very differently. Top athletes are measured on a biometric level, individually and in detail – they have their diets adjusted based on blood test results, among other things. The amazing results today’s sports teams achieve would have been impossible one or two generations ago. They are partially due to advancements in science, but at least as much a result of the highly individualized approach in the application of these advancements:
No professional coach today would move from one client to the next – or to a group of clients – and just continue whatever program worked for the last one. They wouldn’t even start any kind of advanced training without carefully assessing individual strengths, weaknesses and goals – and tailoring their approach. Failing to do so would be failing to do their job. The same needs to be true for management at work:
If we expect individual employees to achieve outstanding results and to give everything at their job, we must move away from standardization in management and standardization in change. This is hard to give up for many organizations because standardization makes reporting so much easier – but it also makes it pointless, because the results measured don’t depict reality; lap times on their own are an empty and non-actionable metric without the context of other factors.
But the supremacy of hierarchical decision-making and the clinging to top management’s interpretational sovereignty make this one-dimensional approach appear necessary: We equate work with time spent at work to conciliate the different operational realities of top management and workforce; it’s the one metric everyone can grasp.
This reductionism puts us out of touch with reality and keeps us from perceiving work as the fascinating and rewarding activity it can be – ironically it also keeps organizations from achieving the desired results and overall performance.
Dropping top-down decision making and interpretation of operational reality frees teams of passionate workers and their coaches from the hurdles of reporting. It gives them the time and space they need to design small-scale, peer-based management structures/processes that will actually improve the way work is being done – and not the way it is reported on.