Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls aren’t there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show us how badly we want things. – Randy Pausch
I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about method – which involves asking questions like “How should we do things?”
This is harder to answer than it might seem. Often people think they know what they’re doing but you, yes I mean you, know they don’t. But you can’t say anything because they’re convinced they’re right. Until it all goes wrong. The issue really comes down to who has power – or the kind of power they have to move things in the direction they want to go.
The people with power in organisations are managers – they are the ones with the ability to change the system. They are therefore entirely responsible for the results, not their workforce, who don’t have the power to make decisions. The managers have to put in good systems and train their staff to do good work. You can have average people and great systems and be very effective.
Or, more precisely, that might have been very effective in the past. Maybe it still is in businesses where you don’t think you need people to bring their heads as well as their hands to work. What you really need now is good people, preferably very good people, who can work with clients and deliver high quality services. In such situations managers don’t have as much power – they may know a lot less about how to do a job well than the people they have working for them. Does that mean they have to change the way they look at things?
There are two things that come out from the research that I’ve read so far.
The first is that almost all work consists of a group of people acting together in a situation. Barriers build up quickly in such situations, with an “us and them” culture developing and being reinforced by the way people act and what they are responsible for doing. The ways in which people do things are going to be informed by what they see as “normal” behaviour – the values, norms and roles played by people in the organisation. It’s just what happens – people imitate those in power because that’s how they get favour. And you don’t talk back to power because that gets you excluded from the source of power.
If putting up walls is the natural state of people in organisations than breaking through them is the task of leaders and managers. You have to figure how to break down barriers and the kinds of methods and techniques that will help you do this. That’s a different task from the one that happened before – rather than putting pegs in holes you’re trying to get people to play nicely together. This can be quite hard.
The second thing is that problems exist everywhere you look. “The research agenda is, simply, everything”, according to White and McSwain in “Beyond method: Strategies for social research.” This is actually quite an important insight. You can study everything – in your organisation, in your life, in the way you do things. It’s all data for research. There is no “right” way – there is the way that is right for you in the situation you are in right now and given what you have to do next. And that makes questions of method even more important – because the only thing you can do is get as good as you can at the process of what you do.
The managers of the future, if we take these concepts as relevant, have to do two things. They need to figure out how to use their power to break down barriers between people, rather than just telling them what to do. And they have to figure out how to make sense of increasingly complex work spaces – ones where they are not in the same place as people who might know, who should know more than them about the best way to do things. That’s a hard thing to do – perhaps even disorienting.
What it also means is that you are best of getting involved in managing something if you really like doing what you’re doing. Otherwise it’s going to be an increasingly difficult exercise. A better option might be to design a business that’s based entirely around collaborating with single-person businesses – where each individual is self-motivated and wants to make a difference. A different networked model. I wonder how that might work.