Friday 8 February 2013

Why putting people first matters more than ever in the 21st Century - guest post by Mike Lowe.

This is a special guest post from Mike Lowe one of the accredited mentors of the Enhancing Their Gifts System - the simple framework that profoundly unleashes employee talent.

“Everybody has accepted by now that change is unavoidable. But that still implies that change is like death and taxes — it should be postponed as long as possible and no change would be vastly preferable. But in a period of upheaval, such as the one we are living in, change is the norm."  — Peter Drucker

Change is one of the few things we can be certain of. What is new, at the start of the 21st Century, is the rate of change.  In the words of John Kotter,  ‘It’s increasingly going up not just in a linear slant, but almost exponentially.  And as things speed up, that means more stuff gets changing out there, and organisations, to prosper, have to react to that. You can’t still do things the way you’ve done in the past and grab opportunities or avoid hazards that come at you.’

Technology plays a major part in this.  In his book The End of Business as Usual, Brian Solis refers to ‘Digital Darwinism, the evolution of consumer behaviour when society and technology evolve faster than the ability to exploit it.’  Corporate social responsibility (applied to supply chains as well as ‘cradle-to-cradle’ product development), marketing and customer service all look vastly different in the age of the Reputation Economy.

But other factors are at work too.  The converging trends of Peak Oil, Climate Change and unsustainable levels of debt (leading to financial chaos) are described by Paul Gilding as ‘The Great Disruption’ which will spell the end of ‘Economic Growth version 1.0’ and usher in a new model of growth based on collaboration and meeting human needs.

The workforce is also changing rapidly.  Today it is more culturally diverse and with radically different expectations of work/life balance than even 20 years ago.  No wonder, then that ‘failures in talent management are an ongoing source of pain for executives in modern organizations’.

At this time of unprecedented change in so many areas of management, what was once ‘best practice’ no longer holds true.  Best practice is, by definition, past practice. The way forward doesn’t consist of an updated set of manuals.  The problems lie at a deeper level in the way we understand business.

Ever since Henry Ford and the introduction of the assembly line, business has been conceived as a machine – a set of processes which, following the laws of cause and effect, lead to a predictable outcome.  The emphasis has been on understanding the system, perfecting it and then ensuring compliance with specified standards for each stage of the operation.

This model has served well in times of relative stability and simplicity.  But in a chaotic and unpredictable world a different model is needed, and it comes from complexity theory. Professor Dave Snowden, one of the leading thinkers in this space, refers to three management paradigms.

The first, Scientific Management, (developed by Frederick Taylor over a century ago) focuses on control of function. It is hierarchical, bureaucratic and designed for an age of mass-production and commoditisation.

The second paradigm, Systems Thinking, (Popularised by Peter Senge) emphasises management of information.  It is outcome focused (define a future state and design a process to get there) and designed for an age of mass customisation and mass communication.

Jokes from the era of the Soviet Union abound.  One is the story of a tourist who came across two workmen by the side of the road.  One was digging holes and the other one came along after and filled them in. ‘What are you doing?’ asked the incredulous traveller.  ‘We’re a three-man tree-planting team,’ they replied, ‘but the comrade who places the trees is off sick.’
This absurd story illustrates a fundamental flaw with Scientific Management (which was enthusiastically adopted by Lenin) – its inability to adapt.

Both Scientific Management and Systems Thinking are based on the premise that the future can be predicted through understanding the chain of cause and effect.  Snowden proposes a third paradigm, which he calls ‘Sense-Making’, based on complexity.  Rather than the machine metaphor, complexity borrows ideas from evolution and the natural world.  Some key concepts are ‘self-organization’; ‘emergence’ (rather than defined outcomes); ‘proximity’ (putting decision-makers in direct contact with the raw data instead of going through intermediaries); and ‘coherence’ (rather than compliance).

Software development was one of the first areas to embrace complexity.  As technology advanced, it proved impossible to predict how users would use it, or what features they would want, until they got their hands on the products.  Facebook, YouTube and smartphones, for example, are used today in ways which could not possibly have been predicted before they became available.  In response, Agile software development emerged as a movement with dramatic success in delivering better outcomes at lower costs for major software projects.  ‘It grew out of the discontent with the many failures of the deterministic approach to software development, where tight control, upfront design and top-down planning resulted in many intensively managed but disastrously performing software projects.’

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development reads:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others to do it.

Through this work we have come to value:
   •    Individuals and Interactions over processes and tools
   •    Working software over comprehensive documentation
   •    Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
   •    Responding to Change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Accompanying this, Jurgen Appelo has coined the term ‘Agile management’ following some of the same principles.

At the heart of this new paradigm for business is the flesh-and-blood individual human being in all their potential – realised and unrealised.  Rather than trying to force people to be cogs in a machine, successful organisations will encourage employees to bring their best game, their unique gifts to work, and empower them to make the right decisions as circumstances change.

An example of this comes from SouthWest Airlines. In his book Do the Right Thing, James F Parker, former CEO of Southwest Airlines writes:

I recall one snowy night in the Midwest.  It was the night before Thanksgiving.  When one of our planes landed in Chicago, it had one more flight scheduled for that evening, to Detroit. In Detroit, the plane would sit in the snow and the crew would seek the warmth of a hotel room until Thanksgiving morning.

In Chicago, all the Chicago-bound passengers got off – all except for one young girl who was confused about where she was. The plane reloaded and took off for Detroit with the young girl still on board. When it arrived, all the Detroit-bound passengers got off-except for the young girl, whose family was now in a panic in Chicago wondering where their daughter was.

It was our mistake, no doubt about it. And when the captain figured out what had happened, he knew what he was going to do about it. He didn’t ask for permission; he just did it. He asked his flight crew to jump back on the airplane and told the Detroit station to call Chicago to let the girl’s parents know their daughter was coming. I don’t know how much money that unscheduled round trip between Detroit and Chicago cost us that night, but I sure was proud when I heard the story. Once again, our people did the right thing.

By way of contrast, United Airlines drew massive negative publicity in 2012 from an incident when they ‘lost’ an unaccompanied minor between flights, and none of the staff felt empowered to respond in a human way. The one staff who did respond appropriately did so in her own time, after her shift had finished.

While the old management paradigms see people as a problem to be ‘performance managed’ in or out,  the new paradigm places the greatest value on individuals, relationships (networks & ecosystems) and meaning.  Only by nurturing, growing and tending these (note the shift in language from machine metaphors towards organic metaphors) can we adapt in times of complexity and rapid change. 

As it turns out, it’s the desire to be accepted, respected, and connected that really pulls at human heart strings.  And as far of the rest of us are concerned—managers, parents, and coaches—learn how to co-opt this awesome power, and you can change just about anything.

Organisations that get this right will not only survive and thrive, but will be able to attract and retain top talent, do more good in the world with less resources, and have more fun while doing it.

Find out more about Mike Lowe, one of the accredited mentors of the Enhancing Their Gifts System here.  And please contact Mike for references pertaining to this article.

Put people first
Author of Changing What’s Normal
Creator of the Enhancing Their Gifts System
- the simple framework that profoundly unleashes employee talent.
Easy to implement.
People focused.
ROI tangible, not just talk.

Experience the system first hand here.

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