The Main Managerial Fallacy and the Full Stack Manager

The way most managers do their job is rather dull. It all begins with the very basic assumptions that managers have about their job. Most managers frame their job as being three things:

  • to lead some people
  • to make most decisions
  • to balance the organizational needs of performance with the needs of the ones performing

Basically, they think they are in charge. Which is perfectly right, only that they picture themselves to be in charge of the wrong things:

The Managerial Fallacy

Managers usually think of themselves as being in charge of a performance mission …but they are really in charge of getting people to do things.

This difference between these two frames is far from being subtle.  Being on a performance missions triggers you to think in terms of the mission, to dissect it into its component parts, to reassemble it into a better organizational machine, and to place the workers to operate that machine. It triggers a rational process of solving a performance problem.  This is exactly the thing we have been trained for at school and at universities. This way of working feels natural and comes easily to us. The frame is: “I am in charge of running this”. But it is wrong.

Analytical analysis is an optimal method to solve a mathematical equation, a physical, mechanical or most problem in natural sciences. Given sufficient information, you can rely on the stable causality of the natural laws to come up with an optimal solution. But an analytical approach does not work in social sciences. Here you never have all information, as the information does not lend itself to being measured well. Plus causalities are always hidden and unstable. You can’t predict individual behavior.

In such a much less predictable, social environment the best method to proceed is not an analytical one. It is an empirical one.  You need to try things to find out the best way of doing things instead of assuming that you found the optimal solution. In social systems there is no thing as an optimal solution, there are only solutions that work better at a certain point in time. People and organizations are volatile. The whole business environment is more and more volatile in this digital age. A stable optimum needs to be replaced by neverending tinkering to always try to come up with a better solution.

Therefore the much superior frame is: I am in charge of getting people to do things.

This frame prompts a manager to:

  • tinker for a better solution, continuously
  • to lead people in such a matter so that they can do things better
  • to consider oneself as a manager of a socio-technical system, the performing organization, not of a mechanical device with measurable in and outputs
  • to understand the work of a manager as a craft. A craft that is to be perfected over time, through tinkering, try, error and learning

After all, management (or leadership) is about this:  Getting people to do things. It is not primarily a problem to be solved by the manager. It is not constantly firing a barrage of orders or motivational messages, as this would be tiring and therefore ineffective. But it is about creating an environment where people do those things that need to be done because they want those things to be done.

Dwight

That environment is built from of Management Practices which are often unlike the ones we commonly take for granted. Here is a comparison.

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Management practices are the building blocks of the craft of management. There are hundreds or even thousands of management practices available. Many of those practices have their origins in the Agile or Lean Movements. But the goal is not to adopt as many advanced practices as possible. First, these are not necessarily better than existing ones in the context of a specific organizational challenge. Second, adopting too many practices means creating a highly regulated work environment. This is contra productive. The target is to create an environment where people do those things that should be done because they want to do those things.  Keep it simple – allow freedom.

The Full Stack Manager

Let’s summarize this modern understanding of a more clever way to manage. A manager is:

  • the builder of environments
  • the provider of freedom
  • the one who connects the performance missions of an organization to the calling of the individual
  • the one who experiments with different management practices in order to find ever better ways to engage groups of people

If you continue on this line of thinking, an optimal scenario to run a sociotechnical system may be to even delegate designing, building and running this system more and more to its component parts, i.e. the people doing the work. By going down that path you end up with a self-managed organization, that has left behind the hierarchical way most organizations are organized.

While this is attractive to more and more companies – even parts of the likes of Daimler, Porsche, Unilever, and Michelin – not to talk of AirBnB, Netflix, Haier etc. – this is not a natural given end state. Hierarchy, as an easily understood, time-proven coordination mechanism has its merits.

Nobody can say where the optimum is for your organization. Nobody can say which management practices are best for your organization. But you can find it out: Tinker, you Craftsman!

A Master Craftsman in the trade of Management is what I would call a Full Stack Manager. One who knows how to run meetings, to know how to create transparency, to know how to make decisions, to know how to create a feedback and learning-rich environment etc.

So, why are managers (so often) dumb?

There are a number of explanations:

  • Peter principle: Everyone is prompted to her or his level of incompetence. Only the competent get promoted. But their career stalls when they are incompetent. This leaves most managers incompetent. This logical argument is a heuristic, that is hard to prove or to disprove.
  • Principle-Agent Problem: Managers may appear to act incompetent, but they really have their own agenda. This agenda might entail risk minimization (or – less often -risk-taking), personal enrichment or aggrandizement, or just having a good time. They should be taking care of the organization, though. Alas, the amount of information that the principal (a superior or shareholders) is always less than the information the agent (the manager) has.
  • Getting things done is more important than doing things great: Success in business is a function of doing the right things on a strategic level, good execution and a good dose of luck. It’s not fully correlated with good management practices. In fact, there are studies that suggest that just 10% of a companies performance is related to good management practices.In other words: You do not necessarily need good management to succeed. Survival is mandatory, performance is optional.
  • Human Nature: Power corrupts. We tend to warm ourselves in the shine of it, making us blind to things going bad and feeling entitled to the status quo.

All of this is true and there is not much we can do about it.

But what we can do to decrease our dumbness as managers is to reframe management from “a solver of performance equations” to a “Gardner of socio-technical performance systems”.

Or to say it in simpler terms: From a Scientific Manager to a Gardner of Sociotops.

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Let me know what you think.

Sources:

I am such a sucker for recency bias. So here is what I read last and which therefore didn’t fail to influence this post:

  • Nissam Taleb, “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile“. Both great book if you want to learn the differences between physical and social systems
  • Phil Rosenzweig, “The Halo Effect“. If you want to know why 95% management literature are stories, but not science, read this. The bad thing is, you will be deeply depressed. The good thing is, re-read this article to cheer-up: Experimentation is the way to go, not dogma.
  • The other books I happened to rate highly on the Sources page

Other than this have a look at

Great Individual Performance needs a Serendipitous Work Environment

We attach the label “great” to persons who achieved outlying performance in certain areas through their efforts and talents. Malcolm Gladwell has analyzed such stellar performance in his best-selling book “Outliers” (see Sources ). He found that three conditions explained a lot of an individual’s success.

The Three Conditions for Great Individual Performance

  1. Upbringing & Support: Few great persons would have been great without being raised in an education rich environment and without the support of others. Bill Gates, for example, had access to an advanced IBM computer at the age of 13, already in 1968, and his mother has been a director for IBM
  2. The 10.000 Hour rule: It takes about ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to become a world-class achiever in a particular area. Bill Gates was able to clock those 10.000 hours quite fast, due to his early exposure to computers in 1968
  3. Sheer circumstance, especially the type of selection process used to identify talent. Take elite Canadian hockey player as an example. They are disproportionally born in the first half of the calendar year, as the cut-off date to select players is the 31stof December.  Players are selected by pro teams at an early age, being born is a substantial physical advantage that turns into a career advantage just because some administrative organization set the cut-off date arbitrarily to the last day of the year.

Only the second factor, 10.000 hours of deliberate practice is fully actionable. By practicing hard, challenging ourselves every day, we might achieve greatness. That is a message that aligns well with meritocratic and protestant work ethics: It is a call to work hard.

Working hard does not help in Business

The problem is: Working hard does not always help. More exactly, the truth depends on the field where one aims to be great at. If you aim for a career in gaming, music, and sports, deliberate practice is the key to greatness. According to a 2014 study[1]deliberate practice is by far the most important factor, the factor with the strongest link between the input (deliberate practice) and career success.

But deliberate practice would not help you much less if you seek a career in education: The strength of the link between deliberate practice and success is just about a fifth of what is sports or music. Other things are just more important, presumably, the upbringing and support, which might explain why being poor is such a sticky social condition.

Plus, the relationship between deliberate practice and professional career success is even weaker. There is still this positive relationship, but it is weak, about 1/20thof the relationship in Sports and Music and one-quarter of the one between deliberate practice and Education.

Seek Advice and Show-up to a Place where Opportunity is

So, if working hard not help, are we helpless to influence our chances to become an outstanding achiever? We are not. Statistical analysis is instrumental in telling us something about average probabilities. But everyone human being is unique and can influence probabilities through actions. While changing personal performance or fortune is hard, it is by no means impossible. Working hard still counts for something, if not as much as one would think is “fair” – if judged from a moral point of view. Here is what can be done to influence the other two factors that Malcolm Gladwell come up with:

  • Upbringing & Support: It is never too late to ask for support by others, be that individuals or organizations. It requires courage and the humility to listen to advice and take it in. The ability to listen to advice is a mighty asset. How many people have you met that were impervious to any advice and went on ahead anyway? If you met that kind of people, chances are that, whatever they went after, it did not end well. Even if you are a contrarian and do your own thing anyway, knowing the challenge what you are up against is an advantage.
  • Opportunity is not as God-given as one might think. If you lock yourself up in your four walls, if you do not show up and engage with others, the number of opportunities you will discover is limited. In sociologist, self-help and spiritual literature, there is the notion of serendipity. According to the dictionary “Serendipity is the occurrence and development of events by chance in a beneficial way. A random event that happens in the absence of any obvious project, which is not relevant to any present need, or in which the cause is unknown.” Serendipity cannot be forced, but it can be helped by moving into an environment “that gives luck the chance to occur.” Moving into such an environment can be a conscious step: “Luck favors the prepared mind.”[2]

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The 4 Layers of Serendipity

Improving yourself through deliberate practice alone is unlikely to increase personal effectiveness in a business career. It helps a bit, but it is not decisive.[3] One is tempted to conclude that hard work is not critical for the advancement of a career either. But that would be pushing Malcolm Gladwell’s findings too far. After all, he explores the condition that allowed top performers to prosper in any domain, not just in business. He wasn’t out to give career advice for the ordinary business professional.

Being Effective in Business

The more relevant question is: What makes a person effective in a business context? That is a question that HR professionals ponder a lot. In order to hire the optimal candidate, HR professionals need to forecast the candidate’s success inside the organization. That is an arduous task. Personal effectiveness is very hard to measure. An excellent effort to do this measurement and forecasting in an academically sound manner has been described by Lazlo Bock, a director of HR at Google, in his book “Work Rules.”[4]The complexity of this subject does not lend itself well to generalization. But what is clear from Bock’s work is that it is not a list of characteristics that is a good predictor of success, but the results of a series of structured tests. Work sample tests deliver the best results for structured tasks with few dependencies. Cognitive ability tests, psychological tests and structured interviews, varied by the type of job, are instrumental in predicting performance for any kind of job.

There is no list of character traits that make a great coworker. There is only a list of tests that ensure that the mental abilities that are needed to succeed in an organization are there. These tests give the data points, that can be used in an elaborate hiring process that manages to weigh the data with subjective inputs from reviewers in a disciplined process.

A hallmark of a proper hiring process is that the odds that a candidate will succeed in a given organization are maximized. The tests devised by HR center around skills and cognitive abilities, as HR can only ensure that the personal endowments that a new hire brings into an organization are what is needed. But these two endowments are just a fourth of what is required for a person to succeed in an organization once hired. Based on a slightly adapted model of Malcolm Gladwell’s model, outstanding performance in a business can be pictured to be a function of:

A. The Endowments

  • Skills
  • Cognitive ability

B. The Organization

  • The richness of opportunity & support that a business provides
  • Personal motivation – as a precursor to deliberate practice, to engage and thereby investing time and personal cognitive abilities fully in the organization

C. Randomness: Sheer Circumstance

Stated this way, each person arrives in an organization with given skills and cognitive ability. These, in turn, have been determined by Gladwell’s three factors: Upbringing & support, deliberate practice and chance. But once a person enters the organization, her or his performance level will be determined by the organization. Consciously designed or not, organizational design and management practices will determine the richness of opportunity and support. And organizational design and management practices determine the ways that employees can find their personal motivation and tie that to their service of the company.

The Serendipitous, Learning Company

A company designed in such a manner can increase the odds that things happen serendipitously, as it allows its members to grow. To grow skills, to sharpen cognitive ability, to find new sources of motivation.

What is needed is an organization that is designed in a way to harness the power of growing individual capabilities. Not just a design to harness the individual capabilities that one has at a given point in time. Rather a design that recognizes the potential of human growth.

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This is what I think. What do you think?

Suggested Reading

Sources

[1]Case Western Reserve University’s assistant professor of psychology Brooke N. MacNamara and colleagues have subsequently performed a comprehensive review of 9,331 research papers about practice relating to acquiring skills. They focused specifically on 88 papers that collected and recorded data about practice times. In their paper, they note regarding the 10,000-hour rule that “This view is a frequent topic of popular-science writing,” but “we conducted a meta-analysis It found that deliberate practice explained 26% of the variance in performance for games, 21% for music, 18% for sports, 4% for education, and less than 1% for professions. We conclude that deliberate practice is important, but not as important as has been argued.”

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614535810

[2]https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Louis_Pasteur

[3]Shockingly, the most important factor for professional greatness, to advance your career and yourself might be the company you joined. A company that provides you with opportunities to learn, grow and advance.

[4]Bock, Lazlo “Work Rules,” see Sources