You probably know that, if you put a frog in cold water and slowly heat it, it will eventually boil to death. This fact was popularised by management guru Charles Handy in his 1989 book, “The Age of Unreason.” But even though you know the parable, do you ever stop to think about it, its implications and its relevance? After all, Handy must have had a reason for telling it.
For me, the story is an analogy for evolution, where change is rarely immediately noticeable. In describing how a frog, normally averse to hot water and aware of the danger it poses, fails to act when the change is incremental, Handy illustrates the danger of gradual change and the way we can be totally oblivious to it. This is a constant danger and particularly pertinent today in the way we run our organisations and institutions: even though we acknowledge change as one of our biggest management challenges.
The fact is, despite acknowledging this and scrambling to adapt, we persist in using past approaches which are neither appropriate nor effective. If you doubt this, just compare the way you are managing today with the way you managed ten or twenty years ago. Despite claims that “command and control” management is dead and demands for “Management 2.0”, you very likely rely on traditional structures, tools and performance measures.
Flatter hierarchies: Just another step in the wrong direction: an article that I came across recently, illustrates the challenge you face perfectly. It effectively highlights “flatter hierarchies” – the strategic objective of so many organisations today – as an oxymoron, depicting them as a relic of the Industrial Age and therefore passé, and describes the need for “inside out” value creation. Unfortunately, however, it also identifies “decentralization” as the solution. This shows how hard it is to move from old ideas and why management change seems more evolutionary than we would like to think. It raises the possible spectres of:
- Perpetuating the historic centralization/decentralization cycle that provides so much work for management consultants; and
- Leaving the door open for restoring hierarchy in the future.
The author makes a valid point when he says, “Value creation from the inside-out and towards the market is a key principle for any kind of organization.” This implies the constant interaction between “the outside” or external environment, and “the inside” with the latter responding readily, rapidly and reasonably to the intelligence it receives. For me that is effectively a call for a more organic approach to management, rather than the mechanical one that underpins hierarchy and remains the lasting legacy of the industrial age. I just wish the author had identified it in this way rather than reactionary “decentralization.”
An organic approach demands:
- A clear sense of purpose;
- A clear understanding of the operational values;
- The autonomy to act independently in response to “non-standard” or unexpected situations.
Apart from anything else, that is the only way to ensure the organisation is not side-swiped by change and is able to identify, adapt and respond to changing needs, demands or circumstances.
This effectively entails remembering Andrew Carnegie’s words, “The only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it.” (I don’t know when he said that, but the fact he died 98 years ago shows how slow the pace of management evolution has been.) Understanding this is to recognise that every individual matters, and is the key to ensuring a sustainable and successful organisation. It will not only ensure you evolve but accelerate the process and secure your place at the top of the food chain.