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Top Management Strategies for the 21st Century

Technology is reshaping society faster than humanity can adapt

The nature of the boiling frog

As far as the world of work is concerned, we’ve reached a boiling frog moment. The nature of the boiling frog syndrome is such that we don’t realize how dramatically our environment has shifted, as it has done so in small increments rather than in one giant leap; by the time significant change has occurred, we have already become acclimated, for better or for worse. Let’s do a quick thought experiment and imagine that an alien has been visiting Earth to observe humanity’s progress regularly at 100 year intervals. 

Assuming she first arrived around 10,000 BCE, for several millennia little would have changed between each of her visits. For example, between 600 AD and 500 AD there would have been negligible large scale advancements. Essentially, the alien would have visited a very similar world. Now imagine the visits between the years 1700, 1800, 1900, and 2000 AD. The century between 1900 and 2000 AD would be rife with strikingly observable changes. Even just 18 years beyond 2000 AD – with still another 82 years before the alien’s next scheduled visit – there are already a remarkable number of tools that did not exist previously that are now so prevalent that they are all but taken for granted. Smartphones, apps, the cloud, drones, cars with self-driving capabilities, AI-powered talking robots and personal assistants (Siri, Alexa, Google, etc.); these are just a few technologies that many of us couldn’t imagine living without in 2018.

When considering the scale at which human civilization has advanced historically, it is mind-boggling to contemplate how far we have come in just the past 50 years. Conversely, while the rate at which we have advanced as a society has proliferated, our neurobiological capacity to process these advancements has remained stagnant; so much so that we aren’t even fully aware of the degrees to which we have outpaced our own biology. Let’s look at this phenomenon in the context of the workplace and, more specifically, the impact it has had on the role of a manager.

 

“Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, it comes with a brain attached to it?” - Henry Ford

Taylorism and Scientific Management

The first modern management system

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The first modern management system as we know it, Scientific Management, was developed by Frederick Taylor in the late 19th Century, as industrial production was increasing concurrent with the propagation of electricity.

 

The goal of Scientific Management was to increase productivity, save costs, and streamline production. Taking into account time and motion studies, it called for productivity targets (piece rates) for workers covering a wide range of tasks. The concept of division of labor flourished under this system; workers were encouraged to focus on highly specific singular tasks while managers were responsible for strategizing, evaluating, and long-term planning. 

Henry Ford famously remarked, “Why is it that every time I ask for a pair of hands, it comes with a brain attached to it?” In essence, scientific management treated people as robots on an assembly line, and although the system’s intention was to align the objectives of management and employees, the unintended consequence was the dehumanization of work.

One might say, “Yes, but that was then and this is now. That system no longer applies in today’s work environments.” However, old habits are not so easily changed. Food shortages in our historical past have hardwired us as a species to overeat even when we know our next meal is guaranteed. The root cause (irregular availability of food) has been eliminated, but the learned behavior (overeating) has not.

The same is  true for many modern managers. Even though the work that we do in the knowledge sector today is no longer focused on minimizing waste and automating tasks, many of our management strategies remain unchanged. Even late 20th Century management guru Peter Drucker was quoted as saying of Taylor, “His approach to work is still the basic foundation.”

 

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Millennial Management and the Path Forward

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity

As we approach the third decade of the 21st Century, the factors contributing to contemporary workplaces continue to evolve. We live in a VUCA world: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity are more prevalent than ever. Knowledge-based work has replaced Ford’s easily quantifiable assembly line productivity of yesteryear. “Fail Fast” is Silicon Valley’s motto, yet, as a society, we are not emotionally equipped to handle failure.

Fail Fast is Silicon Valley's Motto - CommonGenius

 

Further, generational schisms abound. Gen-Xers feel that Millennials don’t naturally respect them as they did their generational predecessors, the Baby Boomers. Similarly, I have met many Millennials who are deeply threatened by the confidence of Gen Z workers who are entering the workplace behind them. As generational gaps increase, workplaces are becoming more diverse than ever. What’s more, many employees are now required to do tasks their managers were never assigned themselves and therefore, are ill-prepared to evaluate or optimize. 

Taylor’s Scientific Management method was successful because the managers of the time became familiar with the task during benchmarking – and could therefore set a high bar for employee production based on their own experience and knowledge. More commonly, today, someone may hold a PhD in Deep Learning as an entry level analyst while the CEO of their company may have a BA in Philosophy and Economics and would never be able to begin – let alone complete – the tasks the analyst is expected to complete routinely. Traditional hierarchies have broken down and new systems to replace them have yet to emerge. Overall, employees are less inclined to take direction from their managers, yet expect more autonomy and license in their work. This makes sense, as work as become less dependent upon the work of others,  unlike the production lines of the Industrial Revolution.

Traditionally, a manager was expected to deliver against known objectives – focus on execution in the here and now, drive efficiency, direct action, solve problems, make decisions, minimize risk, measure and report on performance, hire and fire people, and lead with their biggest muscle: their brain. In contrast, a leader classically had exalted expectations of setting the vision, painting a picture of the future, capturing the hearts of workers, facilitating decisions, setting the culture, and taking risks. The most glib saying in the leader/manager distinction was, “Managers have direct reports while leaders have followers.”

Different Types of Learning

Applying Cognitive Research to Your Management Strategy

Ron Heifetz makes an important distinction about two kinds of learning: technical learning and adaptive learning. Technical learning focuses on hard skills and the accomplishment of tasks; for example, creating a financial model or conducting user research. This type of learning relies on resources that currently exist, are fairly standardized, and just need be sought out.

Adaptive vs Technical Learning - CommonGenius

 One can be educated on a certain topic by reading a book or taking an online course taught by experts. Alternatively in adaptive learning, one relies not on external forces, but on oneself in order to grow. Examples of this process would be learning to better relate to your direct report or to a loved one and learning to have tough conversations through personal experiences. Technical versus adaptive learning does a better job of taking into consideration the unique challenges of the modern workplace than does the manager versus leader paradigm of the past.

 

What is clear is that modern managers have their work cut out for them. It is no longer adequate for managers to focus solely on the logistics of task completion – they must also be in touch with the inner lives of those they manage. While this may not be a revelatory insight, what is astounding is how many managers haven’t embraced it and its implications. In today’s workplace it is no longer sufficient to be just a technical manager, one must also be an adaptive leader. The role of manager is not a reward for excelling in your current role, but a privilege earned by understanding yourself and your colleagues as human beings, first and foremost.

Vikas Bhatia

Principal at Prana Partnership HR consultant at Walmart eCommerce Sr. Director, Digital Marketing & marketing analytics at Paypal Sr Director Global Marketing at Paypal VP at Vapital One Financial Corp Since 2013, I have been running the Prana Partnership, a people development practice aimed at serving leaders get the most out of themselves and their teams. I have held executive roles at big corporations such as Paypal and Capital One. I am a People + Leadership asset for the modern...

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