Are We Lost in Management?

By Alec Corthay

Do you every read posts by Henry Mintzberg? That professor is a very agile management thinker; when it comes to being mindful about leadership, he is in a different league, I find. In a recent post, Mintzberg argues that every theory is as good as its practicality. I agree.

Ups and downs of management systems

Think about “quality management systems” (QMS), which are very popular in France, where my consultancy is based. QMS has practicality: it allows for improvements to be made. The same could be said about “enterprise risk management”, “internal control systems”, “health and safety management”, “customer loyalty”, “employee engagement”, or any other management system you can think of. Having been exposed to some, I have come to appreciate both the usefulness and boundaries of management systems.

A management system works like a theory. It is evidence-based and result-driven, and provides insight into a specific problem.

Now, please consider this: a management system works like a theory. It is evidence-based and result-driven, and provides insight into a specific problem. You and I know great management theories are actionable: they translate into frameworks and tools for achieving a given objective, e.g. improving quality. I am saying all of this to say that: management systems are not magical. They are no better than the people managing them.

Management systems (…) are based on assumptions, just like any theory. For example, QMS assumes that human behaviors are at best when controlled by somebody else

Management systems are not neutral either. They are based on assumptions, just like any theory. For example, QMS assumes that human behaviors are at best when controlled by somebody else. Thus, QMS generally comes with a command-and-control set of policies and procedures, which is codified in a book (aka, a quality manual). Every trained manager knows that : enduring companies live “by the book”.

Companies die by the book

But this is not the end of the story. If they live by the book, companies also die by the book. Companies are lost in management systems, as French sociologist François Dupuy observed a decade ago. Too much rules and instructions kill the spirit of initiative that generates ideas and unleashes productivity. This also applies to organizations that are considered best-in-class. Today, many suffer from excess compliance. Oppressive rules and instructions turn all of us, not just clerks and employees, into both masters and serfs. This, from an organizational point of view, looks like the road to serfdom.

Companies are lost in management systems. Too much rules and instructions kill the spirit of initiative that generates ideas and unleashes productivity.

So where to start?

Companies are lost in management systems. So where to start a change? More of the same is certainly not an issue. Some companies I know of, in France, try to balance the downside of safety management systems with what they call “human and organizational factors” programs. These attempt to transform behaviors by shifting paradigms.

Other companies, less so, get rid of management systems altogether. Other still, mostly knowledge worker company, engrain “agility” and “resiliency” mindsets and attitudes into their corporate training programs. I have recently been a witness at a US corporation that tries, with a measure of success, to move outside of a command-and-control management paradigm. This may be a step towards redemption.

So where to start? As you may understand, I suggest the way to productivity does not start in upgrading management systems, but rather in sharing renewed assumptions about man and his behavior. Management systems are necessary, but insufficient. The way we relate to one another, too, need to be upgraded and, may I say, transformed. And that, from my current point of view, would be a year-long conversation.

Man is a relational being

So to start the conversation, let me lay out a critical assumption. Man is a relational being — and so are organizations. What do we make of that? Among other things, it implies that whatever hurts relationships hurts organizations. The best QMS run by a poor leader will fall short of its goals; in a climate of fear, the best change initiative will tremble; offended leaders hurt bottom line; offended people hurt organizations.

Man is a relational being —and so are organizations. Whatever hurts relationships hurts organizations.

There are more corollaries to this axiom. Compliance cannot be decreed, employee engagement cannot be incentivized, and so on.

Running a company that survives a lasting crisis certainly requires agility and resiliency. Let me also suggest it requires, to start with, dramatic insights into the relational nature of organizations.

Companies are communities

This gets me back to where I started. A few years ago, Mintzberg wrote about Rebuilding Companies as Communities. Leaders, he argues, are not found in those powerful, charismatic figures, but rather among those people that foster a sense of recognition and belonging in the people they work with. Their maturity and skills allows them to bring transformation to individual and team behaviors, and thus generate the drive and momentum needed for other people to work together towards common goals. “Transformers” is a name sometimes used for that special kind of leaders.

By that standard, how many leaders do you know? I reckon I cannot think of many people in that league, maybe 10. On the contrary, I can think of many executives that fail to lead. The other day, for example, I was talking to this senior manager at a large industrial company. His office is facing the CEO’s, so I asked what kind of a man he is. No answer. Would they eye contact when they cross in the corridor, I insisted? “The CEO is a busy man”, he barely answered, “he would not have time for such a thing”.

So here is my point, and I welcome you to challenge it: the main reason why so many companies today are lost in management systems is to be found in our assumptions about man, power, and leadership. Would those shift, I would expect major cultural changes.

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