How the West was lost #3, reclaiming

Is it really possible to reclaim the territory in our organizations that have been lost to neo-Taylorists? I am convinced that we can, and we will end this article with the first steps in that direction. But before we start to see light, it has to get even darker.

Voltaire’s Bastards

There is another book on the domination of “reason” in the West, I would like to mention. It is called “Voltaire’s Bastards” by Canadian author John Ralston Saul. While it is quite in line  with “The Puritan Gift”, that I mentioned in the first article, indeed it sheds new light on some of the examples mentioned in that book, its 640 pages leaves you utterly depressed, not wanting to get up in the morning – the world sucks.

I will not do a full review of the book, it would be too depressing. For those of you who want to get the full story, and can stomach 640 pages of misery, click the image and get the book. Instead, I will add some of the many insights, that I believe are absolutely spot on and true, from the book to another kind of narrative in this article:

  • Why is Neo-Taylorist management belief system so sticky and so pervasive? That is the belief that the human being – the expert – has a capability to understand and plan everything in detail upfront and make it happen through top-down command structures and bureaucratic follow up on plans.
  • Why is it that this Neo-Taylorist belief system leads to totalitarianism – either bureaucratic or heroic? That is a system where the individual just complies with procedure or just follow orders.
  • How can we start to reverse the trend and get focus back on creating real value out of efforts and getting dignity of work back in the picture.

The Sticky and the Pervasive

Why is this Neo-Taylorist cult so strong and everywhere? There is no simple answer, it is a complex mix af many things interacting.

At this point, I have to invoke one of my favorites: Dave Snowden (to my knowledge unrelated to the other Snowden), who has formulated a decision making framework called Cynefin, watch the video, if you want to know more.

There is a long story to tell about this whole idea, but for now let us just settle with the four domains, that Snowden claims, we can put the situations, we face, in to, and based on that chose an appropriate way of solving the issues or benefiting from the opportunities at hand. To the right of the drawing is the ordered domains, and to the left the un-ordered. Let’s quickly describe the four domains:

  • The Obvious (or Simple) is an ordered domain, where any reasonable person can see what needs to be done. We can have best practice. We “Sense, Categorize and Respond”.
  • The Complicated is also an ordered domain, but it is difficult. We have to apply analytical methods or find experts who have built up this special knowledge (like doctors being able to interpret x-ray pictures), before we can go forward with a solution. We can have good practice depending on the expertise at hand. We “Sense, Analyze and Respond”.
  • The Complex domain is something quite different, there are apparently many, many actors and systems that interact and change each other. Sometimes when we have come through a situation, we can see a pattern of how it all worked together, but upfront? Not a clear picture, we have gather knowledge en-route. We have emerging practice, something we knew before, but also something brand new. We “Probe, Sense and Respond”. Experimentation is involved.
  • The Chaos domain, is – well – chaotic, we cannot see any cause and effect relations, we simply have to move very quickly to do something, the best guess, we can think of, to see if we can stabilize something (bring us into one of the other domains, typically the complex) so we can start working sensibly. We have totally novel practice. We “Act, Sense and Respond”.
  • Disorder is the spot in the middle where we don’t know which domain we’re really in and therefore typically falls back to do what we are most comfortable with, like in the domain we were in before.

I invoke Snowden and Cynefin here, because much of the following explanation, of why neo-Taylorism is so sticky and pervasive, rests upon a wrong perception of reality by managers, they simply think stuff is in the Obvious domain, when it is not, but more on this later.

Reason #1 – Because that’s just the way things are

Before we get to any real interesting explanation, probably the biggest reason is that by now after more than 50 years of constantly rubbing it in, nobody can any longer imagine anything else but the Neo-Taylorist approach. Every business school, every advisor, every consultant will give the same message, more planning, more metrics, more follow up, more compliance.

Years ago I worked with Bang & Olufsen in introducing Scrum into their development. I got to know the CEO quite well, he liked what we did. He did however not stay for long, and went on to lecture at one of our prestigious business schools (university). I thought it was an excellent opportunity to get Scrum and Agile on the curriculum, so did he. But he came back and said:

Sorry, there is a generation of educators, professors and such, here, that either have to be buried or retired, before this can be discussed. It is simply too much against their world view.

It is in a way the modern equivalent of Galilei and the heliocentric worldview. Try to introduce Agile Lean Leadership in the average board room, and you might face the modern equivalent of the Jesuits, starting to collect firewood in the reception. Very often managers think Agile and Scrum is fine at the team level, it is great if teams are more efficient. The whole concept is often immediately seen through efficiency glasses, like it happened with Lean, comfortably filtering out any unwanted radiation indicating the need for a shift in mindset at the management level.

As a special case, please note that the educational system is practically galvanised against Agile Lean Leadership, certainly at the management level, the business and MBA schools. I often get invited to teach at institutions, but it is always at the tactical level, not at the strategical level, there are no decision or policy makers involved. As we have seen, management has been lifted out of real life into its own sphere.

According to Snowden, this is a very dangerous place to be in. If you are in the Complex domain, and everybody think in synchrony, based on gut feeling, it is called “group think” and no one challenges this, then really catastrophic failures can result. This is pretty much the position we are in now for example in the Danish public sector

However it is not totally true. There are after all the startups and small businesses, who always have lived the Agile Lean way, as there is no other practical way, if you want to survive as a small organization in the reality that really exists. There is just a widening gap between these and the big corporations, the capital market and the public sector, sometimes bordering on animosity.

It is for example by now very rare that someone from a small business gets employment in a big corporation, the financial sector or the public sector or vice versa for that matter.

Reason #2 – Fear of Breaking rank

This reason is a derivative of the previous one; but it is particularly strong, because the neo-Taylorist approach seeks compliance more or less above all else. As the theory states that the experts are able to define the appropriate structures and procedures, only a fool would break those natural laws of management.

It follows, that people, who have reached the management level and are in the circle, are very reluctant to embark on an alternate course of action that might expose them as non-complying and unreliable. This could be damaging for their next job to be in bad standing with their peers.

Reason #3 – Short term focus

In those organizations that are driven by the financial players, be that the stock market, equity funds or banks, there is almost always this intense focus on the next quarterly report. The Agile Lean approach has as a focus on medium to long term value creation over short term expediency, therefore managers will often have a reluctance to commit to such a transition, if that means limiting the options for tweaking the results for the next quarter.

Reason #4 – Fear of the light

The Neo-Taylorists have actually added a new dimension to the original Taylorism. As management largely have been severed from the actual work, a desire for secrecy have crept in. Manipulation, financial wizardry and speculation are typically admired more than actually providing products and services, and those things thrive better in the dark, where information is tightly controlled.

The original F. Winslow Taylor manager may also have sat firmly on all the information, but that was because he was deeply convinced, that the average person was both too stupid and too lazy to be trusted with any influence on his own work.

But now it is recognized that when Agile, Lean and Scrum initiatives are stopped again, the most frequent reason is that handling all this transparency and visibility, that we introduce, is too much for people. We often get resistance from different management levels on this point. They don’t want to give up on the control of information, it is their power base. As one of my US customers taught me:

We always present the truth in its most favorable light!

Reason #5 – Bureaucracy becomes its own end

Administration is a means to an end. In lean thinking it is waste, it doesn’t do anything for the customer or the user. However it cannot be removed completely, in any system there is some necessary waste, to keep things together, preserve some structure etc.

The problem is that in a larger organization, typically when the number of people working with administrative jobs (here taken as jobs not directly contributing to the product or service, that the organization delivers to customers) exceed that magic figure we recognize from team sizes, 7 +/- 2, then the individual does not have an intuitive overview of why things are done. They typically lose a direct line of sight to the customer, and because everybody needs a purpose to give meaning to everyday life, they start inventing meaning. The administration, the forms, the metrics and the it-systems becomes the most important parts of the business.

When that happens, the next step is typically to invent more structure, more complex metrics, more reports etc. because that has taken the place of real value. It has now become a bureaucracy, and before long its main focus is to multiply itself and fill the earth.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson, an English professor and naval historian, wrote his famous article on growth in administrative staff in 1955, you can read the full original article here. In the article he concludes that the staff of the British admiralty exhibited a constant growth, independent of how many ships were at sea, whether the country was at war or not etc. The growth rate simple depends on when an administrative person feels he needs a subordinate.

You may think he was just joking, but in the grand British tradition of balancing on a knife’s edge between genius and lunacy (Monty Python refined this later on), he gets a very valid point across.

Because bureaucracies exist in their own secluded right, and managers are trained in that tradition, they typically have absolutely no interest in Agile Lean Leadership, that might decimate their numbers.

Reason #6 – Our brain is lazy, simple is easier

According to Snowden our brain is not primarily a rational analyzer, as neo-taylorist approach presumes, it is a rapid-response pattern matcher. Presented with a challenge our brain scans past memories of similar situations and comes back with first plausible potential match. It follows, that our brain promotes recent experiences over more distant ones. In a way it is very much like Google’s algorithm for searching after weak search words, it quickly throws some results at the user.

Furthermore, according to other sources as well, the brain tends to go on standby if nothing seems to require its services. Therefore it is much easier to go with an interpretation of a situation as Obvious (Simple) rather than Complex, it’s hard work to get through a complex situation, it is much easier to just follow rules and regulations.

Both of these causes seem to push everything in direction of the simple theoretical interpretation and henceforth away from the Agile Lean approach of dealing directly with the situation actually at hand. People often prefer simple rules and checklists over getting deeply involved and understanding. Modern management has de facto made a virtue out of being a manager of everything and master of nothing. This can only be done with very simple things, that by definition can be understood by all but the most simple-minded.

Reason #7 – Everything looks simple at a distance

To be fair, everything does look simpler from far away, so management 7 layers up from where the real action is can to some extent be excused for interpreting situations as simple or obvious and thus insisting on the simplistic Neo-taylorist approach. One top manager in the US said to me:

For God’s sake, it is only a database, how hard can it be?

Then the real question becomes: Why do we have 7 layers of management anyway?

Reason #8 – Modern people fall easily into the powergame

When management is defined as something independent of real, factual skills in any area, only focused on numbers, structures and general information flow, there is nothing left of what good old W. Edwards Deming said: “Allow people pride of workmanship“, there is no real thing any more. So as mentioned above, we tend to invent meaning in order to justify getting up every morning.

The most sinister of values to accept as your guiding star, your “true North”, is power, but it is very tempting, and in the media, politics, movies and often in business the junior person only have role models that operate primarily in the powergame; so he think this is the way to operate.

There is no point in trying to hide or even just obscure the fact that Agile Lean Leadership is vehemently against the powergame. Instead the leadership is called upon to be servant leaders, to foster teamwork and to be part of the spirit of constant improvement. A person consciously involved in the powergame will oppose Agile Lean initiatives, that includes himself; he may approve of it for the lower ranks, if they become more efficient.

Reason #9 – Competition and rating is seen as a universal positive

The last fairly clear reason used to be specific to the US, but over the last years this green monster has reared its ugly head also in our little backwater (Denmark). It is by now generally accepted in schools, businesses and the public sector, that the way to improve performance the neo-Taylorist way is to force people to compete, often based on artificial key performance indicators (KPIs).

We see it in the schools and universities with the ever increasing focus on tests and rating of students. No wonder we get candidates whose primarily qualification is they know to tweak and game systems.

In business and the public sector, departments are set up to compete against each other on certain theoretical KPIs, people are evaluated individually based on similar very simplistic KPIs as well. Recently an acquaintance of mine told me, how the HR department had introduced a metric for a software group that meant, that they got extra credit for solving old bugs in the software. Everyone in the team could quickly see, that the rational approach (providing the largest number on the pay-check) to this was to let all bugs grow old before solving them, probably not what was intended.

In Agile Lean leadership, we try to foster teamwork, transparency and a holistic view of value generation throughout the organization. Something the Neo-Taylorist approach will prevent, as people of course primarily want to survive, and therefore focus on the competition. It follows, that people who are keen on this competitive approach will not like Lean, Agile and Scrum.

Why then totalitarianism or autocratic leadership

And now to the second point from the depressing Canadian book: The claim that the Neo-Taylorist leadership approach as described indirectly above often lead to totalitarianism or autocratic management in organizations – either bureaucratic or heroic. A management form where the individual just complies with procedure and typically just follow orders.

As a minimum there is clear evidence of a correlation between the Neo-Taylorist cult’s dominance and the rise of the Imperial Leader, the super CEO. It is also a fact that Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler were great admirers of F. Winslow Taylor’s system.

I find that it is at the core of Neo-Taylorism, that work is split between those who think and plan and those who work and execute, some advocates of Neo-taylorism are very vocal, the subordinate’s role is to obey. Focus then becomes compliance. In Prince2 (project management system often linked with New Public Management) the mantra for management is:

  • Plan
  • Delegate
  • Monitor
  • Control

A new separation of classes have appeared, manager are separated from others and controls what they should do. It is not completely like it was with nobility in days of old, but the dynamics are pretty close!

Remembering Snowden and other’s claims about how we need to, in the complex domain, bind people together with common values and goals. When the Neo-Taylorists instead try to squeeze reality into the OBvious domain with rules and regulations, it follows that will not work. There is only brute force left to make people comply.

For the last arguments, I want to call on another of my favorites, Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard, she has for years worked with describing the Learning Organization. She uses this illustration:

She argues that high performance and great job satisfaction comes together in the “Learning Zone”, where people have a reasonably demanding goal and high psychological safety, read more here. This coincides with most of the things Snowden says about how to tackle situations in the Complex domain.

When working with knowledge work, innovation, reacting to changes in markets or technologies, we need every living brain cell in the organization to partake in finding the best solution, we can. This just doesn’t work with Neo-Taylorist management, as Snowden says: “Knowledge can only be volunteered, it cannot be conscripted“. You may be able to force people to execute tasks as the Neo-Taylorists promote using fear, artificial competition or manipulation. Slave labor works, but not with knowledge work.

When the Neo-Taylorists put everything under the great central planning umbrella, and have processes and checklists for every detail, they effectively force everything into the Obvious domain, which everybody doing actual work will know is out of touch with reality. They don’t understand, much less trust the system, they have two options:

  • If they can avoid being discovered and held accountable, they can slip into the Apathy Zone, resign and think “As long as I keep my head down, the paycheck will keep arriving comfortably“, they have accepted autocracy of the bureaucratic variety, much like people in Eastern block did most of the time from 1945 to 1990.
  • Or if they are in a position, where the pressure is on them, they end up the Anxiety Zone. They leave, if they can, or worse get carried out by men in white coats. If they still hang in there when the inevitable crisis occur due to the systems disconnect with reality, they will, in Snowden’s term, plunge into Chaos, where a strong leader is more than welcome to make the tough decisions. They have accepted autocracy of the heroic Napoleonic type.

Reversing the tide

All is not pitch black however also not for our Canadian author Raulston Saul. Here are some of his points together with input from others written in our own language. How can we start to reverse the trend and get focus back on creating real value out of efforts and getting dignity of work back in the picture?

First of all, let us be frank and admit that it often takes a crisis to get another management principle than the Neo-Taylorist one on the agenda, either a threat or an opportunity of a certain size.

Before launching an Agile Lean initiative, I suggest securing the sponsorship or commitment from a senior executive that cannot easily be sidelined, finding a good project, area or team to start with where acceptance and commitment is to be expected, and finally finding at least one champion in the organization that really has a passion for carrying this through (in Scrum this person is called a Scrum Master).

Then try focus on these four headlines:

  • A clear and worthwhile purpose. For people to commit and be proud of their work, and for clients to be proud of the cooperation with you, have a clear and balanced purpose. This is the “true North” of the organization. One of my US friends said:

We are doing good, while doing well!

  • Transparency and visibility. Come up with ways of displaying the real status of things, the real issues and the real opportunities and goals openly to everybody. If people cannot see the real situation, they cannot contribute with good proposals for solutions.
  • Institutionalized learning. Make sure that issues and ideas are captured, reflected upon and acted upon, that there is psychological safety, that no one is punished for admitting a mistake, seeking help or challenging the status quo. And you cannot just pretend to show people the true situation, they will call your bluff!
  • Self-organizing Teams and respect for people. People are social creatures, small self-organizing teams are the organizational structures most likely to come up with innovation. If you want people’s commitment and brainpower, you have better respect them.

It can be done, don’t despair! There are pockets of companies out there on different paths on the way to discover what Agile Lean Leadership mean for them in their domains. We work with some of them, our partners and colleagues work with others.

Read the two other articles in the series here: #1 and #2.

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