You Wouldn’t Understand…

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Peter Drucker liked to tell a story about a senior military officer who asked a junior technician a question about a complex new fighter plane. After trying for several minutes to explain how the plane’s sophisticated guidance system worked, the technician finally threw his up hands and said, “Oh, forget it, you wouldn’t understand anyway.”

That certainly sounds like insubordination; did the technician think the general was stupid? No, Drucker believed the technician was just telling the truth; the knowledge required to fly the plane was indeed far too complex for the general to understand.

And that is the nature of work and management in just about every knowledge-intensive business today.

Managers cannot possibly know all the details or possess all the skills they would need to do their subordinates’ jobs. In essence managers today are almost completely dependent on their staff’s knowledge and expertise.

Many years ago I interviewed a factory manager who openly acknowledged that his success was completely dependent on the performance of his direct reports. He also told me, “I have to trust them to make the right decisions; if I don’t give them room to fail, I’m not giving them an opportunity to succeed either. But what makes it really tough is that if they fail, I fail too.”

The Industrial-Age approach to organizing work was to create a power structure in which those at the top of the pyramid not only had the knowledge of what had to be done but also possessed the power and authority to tell the minions what to do: “When I say jump, all you should do is ask, ‘How high?’ ”

Being a manager was traditionally seen as planning, organizing, coordinating, directing, and controlling. And that may have made sense in an industrial environment driven by an assembly line and work tasks designed to produce large numbers of identical products with a minimum of mistakes.

Industrial Age management was all about mass production. Managers became managers because they knew more than their staff, and they were expected to make all the trade-off choices because they had a broader, more comprehensive view of what was going on than any of their subordinates did.

But now, in the words of Alvin Toffler, we have replaced brute force with brain force. We live in what Don Tapscott has rightly called the Age of Networked Intelligence – an era of mass collaboration (see Tapscott’s June 2012 TEDx Global talk “Four Principles for the Open World”).

And as Rod Collins (author of the very insightful book Leadership in a Wiki World) puts it, “The exercise of power is no longer about being in charge; it’s now about being connected.”

Collins then goes on to suggest that:

Management’s new primary responsibilities are customer values, collective learning, shared understanding, focused measures, and collaborative community….[and] the most untapped resource in corporate America today is the collective intelligence of an organization’s own workers.

Given that perspective, Alan Webber’s insight over twenty years ago is more relevant than ever:

…the revolution in information and communications technology makes knowledge the new competitive resource. But knowledge only flows through the technology; it actually resides in people – in knowledge workers and the organizations they inhabit…the manager’s job is to create an environment that allows knowledge workers to learn – from their own experience, from each other, and from customers, suppliers, and business partners.

The chief management tool that makes that happen is conversation.

[from “What’s So New About the New Economy?Harvard Business Review, reprint #93109, January-February 1993]

I actually believe that ensuring healthy and candid organizational conversations is much more about leadership than about management. It’s not about controlling people; it’s about inspiring them and pointing them in the right direction. Leadership is not about making people do what you want; it’s about making them want what you want.

We must learn to minimize the power differentials that get in the way of candid, open conversations (revisit last week’s post, “To see a corporate culture, listen to its conversations,” for more discussion of power differentials).

I believe the primary challenge facing leaders today is to produce value for customers (and satisfying experiences for employees) by building cultures filled with meaningful conversations at all levels and in all settings.

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The only way we’re going to develop the kind of organizational and leadership practices that Peter Drucker, Alvin Toffler, Alan Webber, Don Tapscott, Rod Collins, and I are advocating is to recognize that the way we work today (and will tomorrow) absolutely demands that we change the corporate conversation.

If it’s not all right for a technician to tell a general that he wouldn’t understand, how will that technician’s knowledge ever be useful?

In your mind what are the attributes of a good conversation? Can you recall a conversation that surprised you, or changed your view of another person, a project, or the whole organization? What made it so meaningful?