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Principles of New Ways of Managing: #pnwom on LinkedIn and Twitter.

There are new ways of thinking reshaping society and work. They give rise to new ways of working, which we characterise as “Human Systems Adaptability”, and our Teal Unicorn specials interest: new ways of managing. Rob is full of epithets and mantras when teaching this stuff, so we started capturing them: short snippets of new ways.

This collection is still growing – we have no idea where it ends. Follow along! If we think we are about done, we will ask you to vote on the top ones.  We welcome suggestions for new ones. It is an exercise in capturing them as we think of them.  They aren’t quoted from anywhere, although you can be sure the concepts appear in our book, and they are foundational to our Unicorn Management Model.

If you could use more understanding of these, we do online manager coaching.

Want some more?   there are many more here, from Google.



(Click to expand.) (ATOM = Arguments to try on managers. I got tired of thinking these up: contributions welcomed.)

№0: it's a complex world.
The world has always been complex, even before we understood the concept in the 20th Century, but the level of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) was low enough that simple, linear, stable models were a useful approximation. Not any more, except in small, local, well controlled contexts.
№1: managing complexity is complicated.

There are no simple patterns, no templates or formulae. Every org, every journey is different. Only the principles are common. Applying them needs learning, experience, expertise. Get help.

ATOM: “Every org follows a different path, which is unpredictable. Experts can’t tell you your future, no matter how much you pay them. They can only help you stay true to the principles. And suggest experiments to try based on your current state.”

№2: what got you here won't get you there.
 Conventional management clearly works in many thriving orgs.
But the rate of social and technology change is exponentially increasing, which increases VUCA risk.
And the world is more complicated every day.

Complexity can’t be ignored, or simplified. Our old models are simple approximations that worked in a more stable world. Complexity must be managed, which requires new ways of managing and working. In fact, new ways of thinking.

ATOM: “How we managed in the past wasn’t wrong. It just becomes less effective with each passing decade. We are learning how to handle complexity, because we need to. Social expectations are evolving, values are different. We must adapt.”

№3: treat people like well-intentioned adults.

Most people want to do the best. They are victims of a system that skews their behaviour and limits their capability. Give them what they need to get the job done. Empower them to make decisions and authorise them to do the work. The few exceptions should be managed as exceptions, instead of punishing everybody for the few.

ATOM: “If you treat people like children, you will get childish behaviour. If you want your staff to trust you, you must make the first move to trust them. You don’t need to come up with answers any more: the workers closer to the work know better. Ask them. Get them what they need, remove impediments, and get them expert advice.”

№4: flip the hierarchy.
Management can no longer be a structure riding on top of the flow of work, a burden on those producing value. We must get off, get out of the way. The hierarchy should sit under the flow of work, a foundation supporting and enabling it. We need servant managers who let the people doing the work design the work, who come up with resources not answers.

ATOM: “there is value work moving value down the flow to the customer, and there is non-value work supporting that. Which one is management? what management activity impedes or distracts from value work? what non-value work is done by value workers that could be done by management instead?”
№5: you can't make knowledge workers do good work, you can only invite them.
You can force manual and clerical workers because the work is individual transactional, you can see and measure it. Knowledge work is a collaborative team effort on invisible product. You can’t see what an individual does or how well they do it. You have to trust and motivate them.

ATOM: “you have no idea how an individual is producing just from observing the work. The other colleagues will tell you if they’re under-performing, but only if they want to. If you managed by imposition instead of invitation, then teams will likely side with each other, and it will be tough to find out what’s really going on”

“When they’re staring at a screen all day, how do you know what they’re doing?  Even if you spied on them how would you know it was quality work? How do you separate out one person’s contribution to the team? What about a great suggestion they share with someone? A voice of wise experience? How do you measure that? It doesn’t matter how hard you whack them, they won’t work better.”

“And they can leave. The knowledge skills are valued and portable. We need them more than they need us.”

“Read Inviting Leadership, Dan Mezick and Mark Sheffield.”

№6: you don't know until you do something.
In a complex system, the future is unpredictable, the response to stimulus is unknown, until we experiment. Broadly, every work system is complex, even if local situations can be complicated, simple, or chaotic. We can “dance with the system” and develop an instinct for what it is going to do but we will never know for sure.

ATOM: “It’s very tempting to pretend we know what the operating model will be in two years, or what the perfect org structure is. But we are guessing and in our hearts we know it. Let’s stop pretending, and find out way more carefully towards  what works”.

№7: Improvement should be incremental exploration
 in small steps of carefully controlled experiments: small bets. Stop making big high-risk bets on big-bang step-change “transformations”. They mostly don’t work. Improvement should be continual.

ATOM: “What’s our track record for big-bang change? How cynical are staff about another one? Even when we get results, do they stick? And do they need force? It’s universal to suck at transformation projects. And it’s crazy: they’re high risk. The probability of getting it right is pretty close to zero. There is a better, lower-risk way”

№8: go to the gemba.
Managers should spend more time in the work than at a desk. Manage by walking around. Listen, learn (this is not an incitement to micromanage!) Take impediments and solve them. Find resources. This doesn’t mean just talking to direct reports. The most senior managers should go to the coalface: from carpet to concrete.

ATOM: “Why do we escalate to make decisions about how work is done, when the higher up the hierarchy the less we know about the work? Could the management team map the workflows? How many staff do you not even know their name? We should have an intimate knowledge of what’s happening in the work – it’s the only way we will get a sense of where poor performance comes from, and its how we get to add value to the work instead of getting in its way.”

“If you stop micromanaging, and let staff  design and decide, then what will you do all day?

  • Learn about the work.
  • Help it happen.
  • Get to know people.
  • Say thank-you.
  • Think and innovate.
  • Do non-value work that is currently done by value workers”.
№9: get up on the balcony.
Managers should step out of the dance sometimes and reflect  on how it is working by looking down on the whole system. Managers have the time to think and reflect – they are a primary source of innovation. Good managers play golf.

ATOM: “How’s your calendar? When can you see me next? If it’s weeks away, you might want to consider how you manage. Are you micromanaging? Are you tying value workers up in meetings? Spare time in a calendar is a good indicator of delegation, empowerment, and general getting out of the way. The head of Application Development in IT at an agile bank said to me ‘I love my job: I don’t do anything’ “

№10: They're not human resources, they're people, colleagues, friends.
Bury scientific management. Only labour can be standardised and measured. Knowledge work can’t: diversity is essential, work is intangible. Which is beside the point: that’s not how we should treat anyone.

ATOM: “This isn’t some hippy bullshit. This is how we maximise productivity of knowledge workers. It’s proven to work: love not force.”

№11: we have social obligations at work, to make our lives and our society better.
Work isn’t about greed any more, Friedmanism is dead. Shareholder capitalism is giving way to stakeholder capitalism.

Climate change is only the most extreme example of how we must all take into account the wellbeing of staff, customers, and society in general when we work, if we are to have a sustainable economy.

ATOM: “Read the signs. Our customer base has growing expectations of social responsibility.  This is how we keep and grow customers.  And how we look our kids in the eye.”

№12: you think you know the operating system but you don't.
Components interact together in ways which are invisible..until you mess with them. “A recent study in HBR showed half of all teams are not on the org chart.”* All change will have unintended consequences. Be humble and cautious.


ATOM: “This is observably true.  Look at every attempt at change in the past.”

№13 beware the J-curve
Any improvement will go backward before it goes forward for 3 reasons:

We seldom get it right. We must adjust.

A new way requires practice. We never do it best first time.

There are always knock-on effects. The system must also adjust.

№14: Limit the work in progress.
Do less to do more. Create headroom. Stop starting and start finishing. Stop flogging the horse. Maximise the work not done. Don’t go faster, do less. We can only do three.

Maximum throughput does not come at maximum utilisation (fact). It’s usually around 80% (guess).

№15: Change with humility
When people resist change its really important to consider the possibility that they may be right. Don’t just bulldoze, that’s violent arrogance.

Listen to the arguments. Design an experiment to test, with minimum blast radius. Create proof points.

№16: Let those doing the work design the work
The leaders and managers should be servants of the flow of value not masters. The masters are those who have mastered the work.

The higher in the management hierarchy, the more removed from the work, the less qualified to make decisions about it. Empower the masters (Shu-Ha-Ri) and practitioners to design the work. They know it best.

№17: Get out of the way
There is value work, and there is supporting non-value work.

The purpose of work is to deliver value to the customer. So non-value work should get out of the way of value flow.

Most management is non-value work. Get out of the way. Test that everything you do, and that you require others to do, increases the flow of value, not impedes it.

№18: Set workers free
“Engagement” is too weak a word. “Empowerment” is good but still implies something given that can be taken back. Say “freedom”: set the workers free to do better. (See also №3,4,5).

While “losing control” is one of the biggest fears in management, “having control” is one of the biggest illusions. – Bjarte Bogsnes‏

№19: it's more important to improve work than to do work.
You will always be busy with urgent work. If you don’t ruthlessly ring-fence time to improve work, you’ll never do the important work of making the future better. You’ll be battling the same old urgent crap in the same old way next year. We must prioritise improvement over doing. 20% of work bandwidth is a good rule of thumb.

№ 20: copper not gold.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of done. Minimum viable product. Meet the customer need, deliver the value. Near enough is not good enough but good enough is near enough. Accept imperfection, wabisabi. Navigate ambiguity.  Don’t be technically fastidious: technology has to be near perfect, people and process don’t.  Copper is just as good as gold unless you are building for ever – almost nothing we build in business will last for long.

№21: Embrace failure

We don’t know until we do. We will fail. Not only must we tolerate failure, we must embrace it, welcome it.

Failure is a normal part of work. The path to success is through failure. We get to easy through hard. Success is found under a pile of failure.

Failure is an asset if and only if we squeeze the learnings from it. If we don’t learn, failure is a cost.

If failure is not welcomed and rewarded, even incompetent failure, then it will be hidden and we will not derive value.

№22: Redefine failure.

If failure is part of normal work, expect it, plan for it.

Do many small steps. Iterate, increment, experiment, explore.

Fail fast, early, small, and often. Minimise the blast radius.

Expect human error. If you’re not designing work systems to prevent human error, you have fragile systems. When somebody makes a mistake, thank them for finding the weakness in your system that makes human error possible, and  reward them for telling us about it so that we can benefit from the error.

№23: The purpose of an organisation is to provide more efficient and effective services grouped together than we could apart.

As Drucker said, a business exists to create a customer: stakeholder capitalism. The Friedmanist idea that a business exists to enrich the shareholder – shareholder capitalism – is stone dead; greed is not good.  More generally, an organisation exists to create more value together than we can apart. And that value is measured by all stakeholders: not just shareholders, also customers, staff, partners, suppliers, families, society, and our environment.


№24: It's not the manager's job to come up with ideas or solutions
for products, or for systems of work. It’s great if you can, but we need to let go of that expectation. It comes as a relief to many managers. Push problem solving and decision making as close to the work as possible. This is considered the “edge” in conventional hierarchy, but actually it is the centre of value flow, where people know most about how things work and what will work.

See also №16 and 27.

№25: If your work system depends on heroes or you have to recruit exceptional people, it's a broken system.

A good work system achieves extraordinary things with ordinary people.

Treasure your exceptional personnel but don’t depend on them, nor overwork them.

№26: Professionalism is changing.
If your expectation is that professionalism means work is immaculately planned and flawlessly executed then you are going to be disappointed.

Pros exhibit human systems adaptability. They roll cool and smooth.

№27: let the people doing the work run the work.

With sufficient transparency of information, and in non-chaotic situations where we have time to agree (consent not consensus), then the managers should cease commanding.

There are new ways of managing that do not require command and control.

See also №16 and 24.

№28: Be a gardener not a commander.

Create the conditions for people to flourish and for work to improve.

If a plant doesn’t flourish, you fix the conditions not the plant.

№29: It is part of a manager's job to realise their staff's potential.

If somebody doesn’t flourish, it is more often the fault of the system and the management, not the individual.

№30: Doing better is easy. Organisations make it hard.

The new ways work.  They’re an easy sell.  If we get out of the way and let people be their best, they will do their best.

№31: Hire when good people become available
… then work with new hires to find the best place for them.

Looking for a specific role at a certain time is unlikely to go well.
The probability that a good person is looking just when you do is low.

№32: Don't force round pegs into square roles. People are not standardised machines.

Build people’s strengths. Let them follow their interests. Don’t force them to work on gaps and weaknesses. Don’t have a standard “shape”.
Fit the job to the person not the person to the job.
A team is the aggregate skills of its members.

№33: Good managers are hard to find
…as in, they are seldom at their desks. They go to the gemba, they network, they collaborate, they get around.

Which is not at all the same thing as micromanaging: good managers are easy to get to see.
Their calendars have free space, they’re not drowning in meetings.

№34: Recruiting is theatre. Selecting strangers is almost impossible.

It takes a few months to know someone.

Try to recruit those you know through networks.

Draft future principles


Train to leave. Motivate to stay.



If you need numbers to prove that you’re making a difference, then you’re not making much difference.



Good managers play golf


No one is extraordinary always and everyone is extraordinary at something. [@HumanSelection]

People blossom.





Work must be sustainable




Shift quality left,bake it in




Everything is nuanced, nothing is clearcut

Certainly nothing is binary. All mental models are approximations of  a more complex reality.

Including these principles



In VUCA, strategise long-term and plan short term, but don’t plan medium term, it’s wasteful.  Instead do scenario analysis.



Decide at the last responsible moment. Know and work on your options. Know when the milestones are.



Let it be broken


Information is never perfect


You never get it right only better

See J-curve etc


it’s not about them, its about you

Self examine: what can you change about your behaviour/ about the system?

Dont’ tell them what to change, ask them what they need




There is no root cause


It doesn’t matter how wrong the direction is so long as you have course correction


Prioritise that which can be done



Think global, act local.




For creativity and stimulus, apply a random input.


Celebrate people leaving.  If you are a good organisation to work for they will only leave if it is to improve their own career and life, which we celebrate together.  We invite them to return any time.


Everybody who resigns gets to present to an open town-hall meeting on leaving day, if they choose.  Managers make a point of attending, and welcome feedback. Most senior manager present has right of reply, and wishes them farewell.


Pay people to quit. Given them a bonus for choosing to go, rather than stay unhappy. Don’t have a minimum employment time, it is especially important for new hires.


Firing is violence


If you need to fire someone, you likely need to fire some management too.   Most people shouldn’t get to that level of dysfunctional if the work system was performing properly.



You don’t own people. Knowledge work is portable.  People expect to move.


We should care about what we all get done, not what any one person gets done.



We should plan, design, and work on the assumption of a constant flow of defects, errors, and incidents. They aren’t costs, they’re assets, sources of rich learning.