Tag Archives: Management Theory

The Unitary Theory

One of the major problems that physics has dealt with during the last hundred years is the search for a unitary principle or unitary theory. For a long time physics studied electricity and magnetism as 2 separate forces. Then came the discovery of electromagnetism as one of the elementary forces of the universe. Simple common sense saw space and time as 2 quite separate realities – until Einstein explained the space-time continuum. Many physicists now search for the single, unitary theory that will explain the interrelatedness of gravitation, the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the Higgs field.

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In the field of management theory there is a similar quest for, if not a single principle, at least a single explanation, a single list of the elements that make for good management, good leadership. If only we can find it, if only we can figure out how to teach it to managers and leaders . . . .

As in the field of physics, there are many quite serious, profound thinkers contributing their efforts to the search. And, as in the field of physics, it may, ultimately, be an illusory quest.

What makes someone a good manager or leader?

Why do smart, successful executives fail? (It was Sydney Finkelstein’s presentation at the Human Resource Leadership Forum last Wednesday that got me thinking along these lines.)

What is the correct way to handle conflicts on a team?

What exactly is the proper distinction among vision, mission, goals and objectives?

What is the approach to follow: Six Sigma, Agile, Lean, Cog’s Ladder or any of the multiple other systems of performance and process improvement?

Each and every one of these questions, each and every answer represents a legitimate approach to organizing, systematizing our approach to nagging, ongoing human interaction issues that bedevil organizations such as businesses. We need order in our thinking. We need to have thought beforehand about the resources needed. We need to foresee likely consequences and “side effects” of our actions.

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Let’s just not collapse our thinking into a single (unitary) tunnel vision that robs us of our ability to think of alternatives to our own favorite ways of understanding the world. Let’s remember the Law of Large Numbers: “the average of the results obtained from a large number of trials should be close to the expected value, and will tend to become closer as more trials are performed.” (Wikipedia) Often we don’t have enough repeated experiences to make statistically valid generalizations about “the way things work.” We make flawed decisions based on the inadequate, limited information, insights and advice we have available to us.

And we fail. And we adapt.

Is that my “unitary theory”?

The “New Sheriff In Town” Syndrome

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New leaders in an organization can bring a blush of new life, new beginnings. But they can also mean the arrival of the squelching of current staff, their ideas, their creativity.

Call it the “There’s a new sheriff in town” syndrome.

When there is a new leader, it often represents some dissatisfaction with the approach of the former leader. So a new beginning is desired! Great! New ideas. Different perspectives. An understanding of shifting priorities, meeting customer demands and expectations that may have been disappointed in prior times. This could be the birth or re-birth of innovations and insights that have percolated within the organization for some time.

The danger comes when the new leader sweeps in with the perception of a mandate that says, “What has been in place has not worked, and you need to fix it.” Certainly some of the things that have been in place have not been optimal, but the new leader has to bring their perspective, their expertise, their background to bear on a situation that includes some hard work and successes that many people in the organization are justly proud of. Before new precepts issue forth from the executive suite, it is important to listen and hear what the existing expertise in the organization is and what has been learned.

One of the worst violations of the existing bank of knowledge possessed by staff occurs when those at the top countermand what line staff has been doing because “We are not meeting customer needs.” That may be true, but the executive needs to be careful about defining who “the customer” is in these circumstances. It is likely that the executive is talking to other top level executives about what they need and want. Again, that may yield true and very important information about new imperatives; but middle managers and line staff in one organization are usually working with middle managers and line staff in another organization, and their experience may yield equally important information about what is working, what is breaking down, and where fixes to those problems are most likely to occur.

New sheriffs seldom enjoy access to the informants who provide necessary intelligence to get work done most effectively. New leaders should lead, and leadership always includes a huge component of listening well, carefully and at all levels.