Since the Industrial Revolution, most industries have subscribed to management theory coming out of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “Scientific Management,” a system that was created for achieving efficient execution of known, repeatable processes at scale. Essentially, this management style came out of an environment where factories with assembly lines ruled the day. However, regardless of the success of this approach over most of the last century, it has its limits and is proving insufficient for tackling today’s evolving business landscape where customers’ needs and expectations are increasingly voiced and demanded.
The technological changes of recent decades have led to a faster-paced world where customers want answers quickly. They want solutions that are creative and personalized. They expect whoever is serving them to be friendly, warm, and able to take care of whatever needs or questions they have – right away. This is in stark contrast to yesteryear where customers would wait on an authority figure who had more knowledge and clout to respond. The old world allowed for control and order while today requires flexibility and speed.
Thus, this new environment demands a new approach that confronts the constantly shifting sands of today’s setting. Today’s manager needs to pursue adaptability and employee self-direction. They need to engage with employees to seek out their ideas and experience instead of commanding them from a position of authority. They need to empower team members to adapt and make decisions instead of controlling them around inflexible policies and procedures. They need to encourage them with support and positive reinforcement rather than making them fearful with criticism and threats. Simply put, the modern manager needs to create a real team environment where everyone contributes and is given reasonable latitude to do what needs to be done in the moment instead of a rigid, rules-based, mind-numbing one where the human spirit is crushed.
“But no, we can’t possibly do this in the rough-and-tumble world of business.” This is the rally cry coming from those who simply cannot see how things have changed and continue to evolve. To these lost souls the world is stagnant and should continue as it always has. If it worked for granddad, it will work today. Wrong! These laggards will be and are being left behind.
For you naysayers in this traditionalist group, a great and successful example of a move from top-down, command-and-control management to a more self-directed, team orientation comes from perhaps the most rough-and-tumble world of all, the military.
When confronted with a very different enemy in Afghanistan, the military found they had to change eons of convention and adjust their management style. The new enemy operated in a distinctly different way than those of the past. Historically, armies would typically work on a premise of controlled strategy being directed by commanders on the “high ground” where troops were moved around step-by-step like chess pieces. This controlled environment functioned well because the commanders on both sides worked in a similar fashion almost as if there were rules regulating the battlefield.
Moving into the mid- to late-twentieth century however, things began to change. Guerilla tactics and semi-autonomous armies brought flexibility and speed into war. No longer could generals rely on predictable tactics. They had to begin moving more authority down the chain so that adaptations could be made faster.
This newer formation came to full fruition in Afghanistan where small, agile, very mobile enemy teams whose only strategic goal was to win battles and move on to the next would shift and fight in unpredictable ways and move around to assist other teams on a whim due to the ease and speed afforded with inexpensive communication tools (think cell phones). The established, traditional armies found themselves in a state of confusion. The game had changed. There was no longer an opposing chess master moving the pieces in some likely formation. Instead they were confronted with chess pieces who could move themselves based on the state of play in the moment. The rules were out the window. Traditional strategies were no longer effective.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Think about what was described earlier about the modern business landscape. Customers, like the opposition forces in Afghanistan, are less predictable, have needs that change quickly, and can get information and communicate with other consumers in a flash. Like our military counterparts, many of today’s business leaders are in a state of confusion. The rules are out the window. The old strategies and norms are no longer effective.
So, what did those traditional military leaders do? They surveyed this situation, saw they were losing, and changed. They decided to mirror the enemy’s style. They moved authority down to the front line. They created a structure where autonomous teams were armed with a broad objective rather than a set, specific, step-by-step strategy. “Reach the objective. Do what you need to do. Use your training and knowledge. Communicate continuously and move quickly to meet the needs of the moment.” This became the way of working. Each team was empowered to solve problems on their own, problems that would have never been foreseen by their “manager.” In the old system, the problem would have had to be reported up the chain, solved there, and then communicated back down. This “Taylorist” methodology simply could not keep up with an enemy without such a restrictive system. (NOTE: for more on the military’s change in management style, I recommend two books: Team of Teams by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Radical Inclusion by Gen. Martin Dempsey and Ori Brafman.)
Again, if this sounds familiar, it should. Managers today need to adapt to the new landscape in a similar way. They must become servant leaders who give control rather than take control. They must work to create self-directed team members who can step up and lead when the time is right for their particular talents, strengths, and knowledge. This is what today’s environment requires. This is what today’s customer wants and needs. This is how today’s manager must start thinking.
What are your fears in this thinking? How can you move past the fear and get your team up to speed and able to make those decisions they need to make in the moment? What do you need to do as a manager to move forward and build a team of leaders who can do for themselves in pursuit of the bigger objective of customer and business success?
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