Are you innovating or stuck in the mud?

by Dr. Reg Butterfield

Are you innovating or stuck in the mud?
It seems to be hard to think differently

8-Minute read. (Image: Courtesy of Carlos Urban on Pixabay.com)

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I was browsing through LinkedIn the other day and I came across a post that talked about academic peer reviews stifling new thinking and research. To gain funding or support for researching or developing new ideas on subjects or being innovative in approaches to expand new forms of study, peer reviews of the study plans are needed, and agreement reached before the candidate can move forward or gain funds. Unsurprisingly, peer reviews were seldom supportive of things that were not in their domain, mindset, or framework of how things should be done. So, innovation was and is still seldom the order of the day.

This immediately reminded me of a conversation that my colleague Ross and I had some years back when we started to research change management and new ways of thinking about organisations and management.

It was clear from the early stages of our work that significant numbers of the ideas relating to organisations, management, and change being discussed today were not new. Many were presented as ways forward decades ago. We asked each other what stopped them becoming a reality as many made sense in today’s world? Initially, we hypothesised that maybe the new ideas were not of their time and so people were not able to understand them sufficiently well enough or the motivation was not there to do things differently. We still have no definitive answer to the question. The impact of that discussion was that we decided to spread our research wider and include areas not normally associated with the traditional routes linked to organisations, business, and management. We didn’t want to fall into the trap of narrow thinking and restricting our work solely through the management research lenses. This was probably the best decision we could have made, more about that in another newsletter later.

Another article that I read recently was about leadership and its changing role in a world of hybrid working. As I read it, I became more and more frustrated. Whilst discussing leadership in a ‘new’ world of hybrid working, the ideas and prescriptions offered to readers were all still firmly rooted in the traditional hierarchical organisational structure and management systems of the industrial age. It was almost as if the author was trying to ensure that the leader role survived the changes in work practices, which seems to be a common aim in articles on hybrid working; maintain the status quo of leadership and management.

I sat back and reflected about an industrial age process that has changed.

To keep a company vehicle mobile, I used the services of the same auto service garage for about 15 years. One of the staff was a man with limited education and a magnetic personality who loved his job and radiated happiness to all around him, George was his name. George’s job was to put grease into the numerous grease nipples that were throughout the suspension, transmission, and wheels of vehicles of that era. Without that grease, the vehicle would grind to a halt in no time as the bearings seized and burnt. Thankfully, today we no longer need the crucial services of what many used to affectionately call the ‘grease-monkey’ role. The greased bearings worked well and yet technology enabled the change of the design and working of moving parts into a more efficient process with less need for maintenance; some now needing no maintenance at all. This meant that it was also necessary to change the management of the vehicle maintenance schedule and the roles and skills of the people involved.

When it comes to finding new ways of operating the business of an organisation using the latest technology, we are still discussing the role of the ‘grease-monkey’ (leader) as if it is still the same job and skill set.

The function of leadership is at the centre of a multi-billion-dollar industry that is distributed within 5.8 billion hits on Google. According to Forbes, in 2019 leadership development alone was a US$366 billion industry with an estimated US$166 billion annual spend on leadership development in the USA alone. Yet data provided by McKinsey offers a startling insight into the leadership industry: most of these leadership programmes fail to create desired results.

As McKinsey point out, the focus tends to be on content as opposed to context, too much reflection and not enough application, underestimating the organisational culture, and what gets measured gets done. Yet, the experts on leadership tend to argue that the components of leadership are the same, irrespective of the type of organisation or business. If that was true, I suggest that the leadership industry would shrink rapidly and the plethora of different models and systems would die with it, yet it thrives because this one-size fits all approach is not appropriate and yet organisations are still looking for one-size-fits-all grease-monkeys.

When examining what seems to be going wrong, I argue that the above issues are not surprising, and I also add one major point — the current leadership model is out of date. The role of the ‘grease-monkey’ is now out of context in a complex technologically driven world of new relationships between the organisation, its technology, its workforce, its suppliers, and customers. These changed relationships mean that the organisational design and ways of working are at the crossroads of significant tension between the industrial age bureaucratic models and the need to work and think differently.

Just as the academic peer reviews are holding back the innovative approaches needed for the future of research, the ‘grease-monkey’ mentality of senior management is hanging on to redundant organisational designs and management systems. This reluctance to change is supported by the training and consultancy industry that continues to feed outdated ways of managing and leading. The world of leadership and management is stuck in the mud of history.

The grease that lubricated the bearings of my old cars was part of the design that was necessary to ensure that the bearing’s purpose was achieved. It wasn’t just any old grease. Each type of bearing had its own formula and viscosity for successful application based on the role, location, and structure of the bearing, which varied across the years as innovation moved technology forward into new ways of working, which required new materials and so on.

Yet, the role of leadership has hardly changed since the model was taken from the military approach before the last industrial age. It is still predominantly hierarchical, entrusted with decision-making power and authority, using linear causation processes, and associated objective setting to get things done. It is reinforced through setting performance related goals for its workforce, which results in compliance as opposed to motivation and engagement.

Basically, its foundations are set in an era when managers were the experts with knowledge, they did not trust their workers and sought to bring them together in buildings to ensure compliance and control. Not much has changed to the model since then. However, the expectations of the workforce and society has changed significantly towards what work means and its implications for organisations and management. Hence this increasing desire for hybrid or other forms of work and organisation.

Where innovative people have approached this changing environment with open minds and a trust in people, success has followed. Examples of these organisations are Patagonia, Hollands Kroon, Tony’s Chocoloney, Buurtzorg, Hutten, Beetroot, Haier, The Morning Star Company, and more. Whereas those who have developed a new format that focused more on the changes of leadership and management within the traditional bureaucratic model have had limited take-up and success. The focus is more on the processes and in many ways creates just a different version of hierarchy, and their associated problems, such as the models of Holacracy and Sociocracy.

The critics of Holacracy argue that the outcome is more complicated, confusing, and takes little account of the people. I argue that it is an example of trying to resolve some of the problems of traditional bureaucracies through changing leadership models within the same overall hierarchical model. A little like taking the grease out of the bearing without changing the design of the bearing.

My colleague Ross and I have come through the challenges and dead ends associated with a desire to create a way of working in organisations that emerges from the past constraints, enables innovation and new thinking, and engages the workforce. We found that one of the keys to this is eliminating the constraints of power and control in organisations.

Originally published on Substack on May 29, 2022.

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Dr. Ross Wirth

Dr. Ross Wirth

Designing organizations that free people from bureaucratic controls — a purpose-driven organization that is built for operating with continuous change.