Intuition pumps on the nature of modern management



· 10 min read

Imagine for a moment that I granted you 50 hectares of arable land and asked you to farm it to the best of your ability, given the technology available to you now. One of the most significant innovations in agriculture, dating back to around 5000 BC, was the invention of the ox-pulled plough, which enabled large-scale agricultural production. But you would probably choose to use a modern diesel-powered tractor—unless you were Amish, and we'll return to that in a minute.

How about I ask you to build a factory production line to spin cloth? Would you choose to use a network of individual artisans and craftsmen working independently, usually in their own homes, or would you situate it in an urbanised area where your access to labour and electricity would allow you to build a modern production line powered by electricity? If you chose the former, you would probably be a Luddite, and we'll return to that in a way that might surprise you.

Or, to put it in more familiar terms, if you had to build the systems to run a modern fin-tech company selling products like insurance or retirement products, would you choose to use COBOL running on a mainframe or a modern high-level language running in containers on a virtual private cloud?

These are examples of how technological innovation and development have fundamentally changed the approach to building something, enabling us to choose to use modern technology. They are also all intuition pumps to help me make my next point.

In that first case, if you were Amish, your culture would lead to the choice of using a tractor but one with steel wheels and using animal labour.

In the second, the Luddites were a movement made up of the people who had been mostly artisans and craft people working individually, usually in their own homes, who were effectively made redundant by more modern methods and who rose to smash the machines they saw as taking away the livelihoods. Luddititism is likewise a cultural movement.

Our management culture, as we see it expressed in most organisations, is based on a set of structures and methods that date back to the late 19th century, when the split between the people doing the work and the people making decisions about how the work should be done was first formalised.

So, let's pause and talk briefly about what we mean by "culture". One way of talking about culture is to say that it is "the way we do things here." This is sufficiently broad enough to encompass everything from religious ritual, how we say cheers when we celebrate with a drink, our food, our language or a style of dress associated with a musical form like the "Goths" were in the post-punk era in the UK.

Culture is usually something we inherit, usually unquestionably. If you are born into a family that practices Christianity, chances are good you'll grow up and, in turn, raise your own family as Christians. It would be remarkable for most people to change something as core to their identity and culture as their religion. It happens, but infrequently.

A country where most of the population practices Buddhism will differ fundamentally from one that exemplifies modern capitalism. A culture of pacifism and compassion is vastly different from the militarism and lack of social support structures that are a feature of that most capitalist of nations, America.

Our inherited culture is thus usually highly resistant to change. Relatively modern examples of significant cultural change have traditionally been accomplished through the oppression of considerable power, like a colonial force.

Examples of this were evident when I travelled through Southeast Asia, where the English, Dutch, Portuguese, and French colonial powers changed many ways in which people had to adapt to their oppressor's culture. (It also created some of the most delicious fusion food).

A slightly older example of resistance to this change is found in Crypto-Judaism, where the oppressed Jewish communities outwardly expressed following the Christian religion while continuing with their Jewish culture in secret.

So, to reach the point of these intuition pumps, "Management" is a form of culture usually inherited from a previous management method. The people currently responsible for management base their management methods on how they were managed when they were individual contributors.

This echoes how a post-revolutionary country usually ends up with an even more fascist government than the one they overthrew as they practice the same oppressive methods that they were victimised by, in turn. Think here of Pol Pot or Mao's "Cultural Revolution."

The conundrum is that the organisational structure and management methods or "management culture" were codified in the late 19th century. This was an era characterised by the production of physical products by individual, unskilled, low-morale workers engaged in repetitive, non-creative work, and management culture responded to those conditions through micromanagement, motivation by punishment/reward and taking control of planning, leading, organising and controlling the process of production.

Technology has fundamentally changed the nature of work, and unfortunately, the culture of management has not adapted to this advance in technology and the world of work.

By contrast, most work is now abstract, produced by highly skilled teams of people motivated by intrinsic forces who, due to their situational knowledge, are better positioned to plan, organise, and design their own work processes.

The implication is that the manager's work has to change in response to this advance, which means a fundamental shift in management culture. Remember, all culture can be described as "how we do things."

Thus, it's also unsurprising that the first forms of agile work methods were "crypto-agile," as teams discovered better ways of working in this modern context and practised them in secret, away from their manager's influence.

Enterprise Agile Transformation is thus an attempt to change management's culture fundamentally. Unsurprisingly, there is resistance to this change because changing culture is complex and takes a long time. It also sometimes relies on applying power to push for the required change.

Successful transformations were made possible earlier because an existential threat to the organisation's continued existence was a powerful force for change. In those cases, it was what Evita Bezuidenhout described in her first stage show as "Adapt or Dye" and how that applied to the fascist, racist Apartheid government.

To be blunt, the "agile transformations" I've observed in corporate South Africa have been largely misunderstood and misapplied. They are viewed incorrectly as a delivery problem within the organisation's technology divisions that the superficial application of agile methods and frameworks can address.

To "adapt or die" in this context, a fundamental shift in management culture can only come if the fundamental management structures from the very top, from the C-Suite all the way down to how the individual contributor is managed, must change.

If an organisation truly believed that it needed to create a management culture that recognised the changes in how work is accomplished in the modern world, then I would like to challenge a C-Suite of a large enterprise to "practice what they preach" and organise themselves as models for the required change.

That would mean, for example, a CEO as Chief Product Owner providing challenges to her team to collaborate on delivering small achievable goals that roll up to an organisational strategy. Meet on a daily basis to discuss their progress or lack thereof and for someone to take on the role of removing the obstacles to progress. Engage in regular cycles of less than a month to review their accomplishments and identify experiments that they formulate as hypotheses on how they could measurably improve their team's delivery, hold themselves accountable to those goals and share the outcome regularly with all their employees. And to have a coach to help lead them in the journey towards continuous improvement.

To abolish the siloes that prevent close collaboration in shared goals, redesigning the organisational structure to support this way of working, making it possible for people at all levels to work and collaborate on the shared organisational goals.

In my experience, this has not been the case for any large organisation within South Africa that has engaged in "Agile Transformations."

If you have, please point out the agile coach currently working directly with a C-Suite team. I'd love to see that example and maybe even choose to work there.


About carlo

a technological optimist. an agilist. a cook. a foodie. a music producer and dj. a cat lover

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