19th Century Medicine, 19th Century Management

Something unexpected happened with a recent post I wrote, “If it can be measured, it can be manipulated” (link below). My intention with the post was to point out the pressure employees feel to game whatever system you throw at them, and the futility of managing by metrics. It’s a call for managers to work with their people, rather than their spreadsheets; for leaders to treat their people like mature, responsible adults rather than troublesome children.

To my readers’ credit, most got it, as you can see in the comments.

For every terrific comment, I received a dozen or more tweets remarking on the post. Most of these got it, too – but a solid minority said, basically, “Fire the cheaters and double down on the metrics!”

Umm… Hmm.

Let me be clear: I am not at all tolerant of unethical conduct, inside of business or out. Indeed, I’ve recently been called old fashioned and a Puritan by different friends who know me and who understand how serious I am about ethical – indeed, moral – behavior in business and beyond. If someone is cheating, harming your company in any way, even if just through a negative example, I say fire away, by all means!

But that’s not what my post was about. My post was about how many leaders trap their employees in no-win-besides-cheating situations with the detrimental hoops they demand their employees jump through. My post was about (mostly) good employees and the incompetent leaders who micromanage them.

We live in an era when it’s easier than ever to collect whatever micro-data we want on all sorts of things: all manner of employee and consumer behavior, as well as on markets and supply chains and commodities and voters block-by-block and… you name it!

The biggest problem I observe with all of these micro-measurements is, leaders are relying too heavily on all this unfiltered data and, in so doing, they’re abdicating their leadership duties.

Leaders, stop counting the leaves on one particular tree out there. Step back and discover the beauty of the whole forest! Think big picture, strategically; holistically. Start with these questions:

  1. What is your business trying to accomplish? Why?
  2. How can a given group of employees help achieve that goal?
  3. What can you, as a leader, do to clear a path to productivity? In other words, how can you serve them?
  4. What few metrics (seriously: one, or two, or at most three things) should you provide them to tell them how they’re doing?
  5. What else can you do to help them?

Leaders, your role is not to preside over a struggling, oppressed workforce. That’s what 19th Century leaders did at the dawn of the Industrial Era. In the 21st Century we can manage better than that. A comparison to medicine works here. Think of a trip to the doctor in 1870, 1950, and today. If you had a time machine, would you send your family back in time to fight disease? Then why would you manage with methods from a bygone era?

This is the part of the post where I invite you to weigh in through the comments section. Please, let me have it! The dialog is how I learn and grow as a leader and author.

Click here to read If It Can Be Measured, It Can Be Manipulated.

Graphic by Shawn Murphy

Ted Coiné is a Forbes Top 10 Social Media Power Influencer and an Inc. Top 100 Leadership and Management Expert. This stance at the crossroads of social and leadership put him in a unique perspective to identify the demise of Industrial Age management and the birth of the Social Age. The result, after five years of trend watching, interviewing and intensive research, is his latest book, A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive, which he co-authored with Mark Babbitt. An inspirational speaker and popular blogger, Ted is a pioneer of the Human Side of Business (#humanbiz) movement. He is also a serial business founder and three-time CEO. When not speaking at conferences and corporate functions, Ted advises CEOs on how to become Truly Social Leaders, or “Blue Unicorns” as they put it in A World Gone Social, in order to bring their companies into the Social Age. Ted’s advice: “Change is only scary if it’s happening to you. Instead, bring the change your competitors dread. That is something only a Social Age business leader can accomplish.”

  • http://www.frymonkeys.com/blog Alan Kay

    Got it! Leaders want to think about the fact that data analytics are going to drive a lot more of their decisions. And, that automation of the analytics will increase dramatically. In turn, this will lead to the rise of automated decision making – think of the manager in the future who asks Siri for a quick ‘recommendation’ on some issue they don’t have time to think about.

    Which all leads back to the simple rule: be careful what you measure. Deming put management by measures as #5 on his list of seven deadly management diseases.

  • http://www.humanizebook.com Jamie Notter

    Amen! And that’s only one example of outdated management. It blows my mind that a large percentage of what we call our “best practices” were (a) invented in the 1950s or earlier, (b) have not seen significant innovation since that time, and (c) often run counter to evidence-based examinations of what works. Data and measurement are not, in and of themselves, a problem, of course, but we need some 21st century sophistication with how we use them. Great post(s).

  • http://www.shiftandswitch.com Ted Coine

    Jamie, thanks so much! I’m glad we’re on the same page here (glad, but in no way surprised).

    The reason best practices suck is that, at the very best, you’re copying someone else – not exactly a way to innovate and cut free of the pack, is it? Add to that the notion that the best practice is based on 1950’s management, and I hope the problem becomes clear.

  • http://www.shiftandswitch.com Ted Coine

    Great point, Alan! How long ago did Deming write that…? Oiy.

    I’d add to your warning on being careful what you measure: also be wary of data devoid of context. I’ve witnessed many alleged statistical whiz kids display a basic failure to recognize the difference between correlation and causation. It’s stunning. Statistics in of themselves aren’t dangerous, of course, they’re neutral. But when they’re misunderstood and misapplied – which I honestly believe is at least 93.4 percent* of the time – they can help a leader drive his organization off a cliff.

    *They say that 74% of statistics are made up on the spot. This one certainly was.

  • There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

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