Lingering last-century thinking

Conventional 20th Century management is baked into so much language and so many ideas and models. The world has moved on; we are better now, more enlightened. We understand how management can be different so as to make work better. This site is all about that.
But still the hierarchal, command-driven, mechanistic, dehumanising ideas linger all over the place.

This discussion all started when Stratified Systems Theory and Requisite Organisation popped up in my social media recently. I leave it to the reader to find out what these are.  It really kicked off on LinkedIn, so I’m collecting all that I wrote here.  if you want to see the contra-arguments , check out the comments in this post.

I find SST regressive, and hence repellant, on multiple levels, such as:

💀measure, stratify, and pay individuals on a single metric
💀place bosses above workers as higher capacity and intelligence
💀model reality with a neat simple logic construct
💀claim that morale improves when people know their place
💀warn against management being too close to the work

and so on.

This is quintessential Scientific Management. It is dehumanising, overly simplistic, elitist, patronising, and inflexible.

I read into SST assumptions like these:

💀Strategic work is less boring than tactical.
💀Simpler minds will be less bored in the “lower” levels of the org.
💀Managers can add value to work but workers can’t add value to management.
💀Accountabilities for doing work are lesser than strategic thinking and require less authority.
💀People have a set role they should stick to, instead of maximising the value from their skills.
💀We can pay managers much more than workers if we can just convince them managers are more valuable.
💀Cross functional activity should only happen at the top.

The inherent assumptions I described stick out like the proverbial dogs balls to me. This couldn’t be more dated if it wore flares and platform shoes.  I have no intention of spending much time on learning more about SST, though I will read more about RO as I’m sure there is some gold in there as in every gravel bank.

I’m not partisan about any model, including Laloux, because they’re all wrong. Part of my aversion comes from treating fellow humans as any sort of reductive mechanism, and part from the arrogance of those who assert their particular flavour of simplistic thinking is the sandal to follow. As I wrote in Open Management, we must rise above all this crap and get back to being social animals organising together in enlightened ways in a complex world.

I’m sure it’s full of good ideas. Nothing is all bad. I think the comparison with Theory of Constraints is a good one here. Brilliant minds, lots of great ideas, but a paradigm firmly stuck in the past.
ToC is stuck on linear flow (despite their protestations that they handle complex systems and networks just fine by bending and twisting the concepts) .
SST seems stuck on hierarchal thinking: people knowing their place and dutifully doing assigned roles, and management elitism (despite their protestations…)

I don’t believe that it’s any more “complex” or requires any greater intellect to think longer term or bigger picture. Or that such thinking should be separated out and distilled to “the top”. I think that’s elitist (and horribly dated, we’re better than that now ). I think the advanced complex nature of management exists more in managers’ heads than in reality. I never cease to be amazed at the knowledge and intelligence required to do the most “menial” tasks. Because I take the time to immerse and share the experience.

I’ve worked in boardrooms and factories. There are geniuses and idiots at all levels. The ability to “rise” in an organisation has much more to do with class, education, and language (and looks, and inclination to play the games) than capability. People aren’t smarter because they’re “higher”, and people aren’t happier because a “lower” level is less demanding on their simple minds. SST is the voice of privilege.

There is no good reason why long-term strategy is more inherently valuable than a Ri master of a craft that makes all the value.  There is no reason that James Webb should have been paid many times what the master engineers were to make Apollo happen. In our experience the best span of pay in an organisation is 3x, though we are still learning and refining. and it does not map to the hierarchy. 

SST wants people to understand their place in the system and do the job they’re given, because “we” know they will be happier there. In the 21st Century we aren’t locked into roles. I’m good at waiting food, and I can sous-chef, but I prefer to be a barman and I can manage a bar but don’t like to (all facts) so we plan the work together for me to do what I need to at the time. The authority does not have to come from the duty manager, let alone the hotel owner. Both of whom, in my experience, are very much my intellectual inferiors. Not does the plan for the redevelopment of the hotel. The staff serving the customers have many times better understanding of what the customers want than the management. Even the owners would benefit by planning the future of the hotel collectively with the staff, making much better decisions as a result.

My primary basis for rejecting these models is I don’t like them. They dissonate with all that I find effective. I’m not talking hypothetically here. At Teal Unicorn we have succeeded at every one of about twenty clients, sometimes because of management and sometimes despite them.  Have you seen Teal Unicorn’s results? You will soon when Corporate Rebels write us up. We are consistently – every time – unlocking higher performance and morale in clients.

To put it another way, I feel the same way as I do about Organisational Behaviour Management. I don’t care whether it works or not, it’s not the right way, it’s not a healthy way, to think about your fellow humans, your colleagues. We aren’t machines, we can’t be described – or manipulated – by maths or logic. Logical thinking is indeed useful, nearly as useful as critical thinking. It’s only one thinking tool, and a limited one for dealing with human culture, organisations, and society.. unless of course you treat people as machine best, when it works ok. Suboptimal but functional in a brutalist system. The heart of bureaucracy. We should leave that kind of thinking in the 20th Century.

Hierarchy is indeed a natural phenomenon that emerges from organising anything. The question is how to construct the hierarchy. It is not necessary for it to centralise power at the top, nor grant positions in it by central fiat. It doesn’t have to sit on top of the value work as a burden: we say “flip the hierarchy”. 

invert the hierarchy

Managers are servants of the real work. And they’ll find some great strategic thinking among “the masses” if they get down off their pedestal and look. The world has moved on from managemwnt on top. If course the lag is enormous for any social change but I don’t think you can be at all progressive and still talk that way. As I said, it’s so last century.

I’ll not be going back. Life was hard and most change failed working in conventional corporates. When Teal Unicorn introduce better ways of managing and working, productivity blossoms, money flows, and people literally cry in relief and happiness at their better working lives. Every. Single. Time.