Overwhelmed Managers – part 1: Making sense of today’s world

In the last article I described how managers are overwhelmed with the situation in today’s complex environment and described three different swamps and how this image might help to imagine a manager’s situation.

The first swamp: Today’s complex environment

Management describes the activities to direct, organize and plan based on economical and target oriented principles. We usually refer back to Frederic Winslow Taylor’s approach of scientific Management as the historical basis of Management. The foundation is the engineering character of the industries at that time. And machines and engines worked quite simple: You give an input a to compute and expect the output b. There is no variance in this predictable environment.

The times dictated this approach. The focus on the productivity might be responsible for the wealth we experience today. Non-educated factory workers should not think about their work, but rather only execute what their line managers told them. At that time, big corporations such as Ford, General Motors, General Electric or similar were able to scale with such an approach.

The Principles of Scientific Management are from 1912

In the last 100 years, a lot of things have changed. Technical, social and economical advancements have increased possibilities. Most economies are moving more and more towards a service economy. Machines automated traditional industries . While the factories are becoming less and less human, our daily interactions via modern media are more and more depending on human interactions.

Adding more human interactions with different motivations makes the output of our instructions less and less predictable. The economical advancements such as banking and trade cooperations makes us connect to people much more freely. The technological advancements such as internet and smartphones enable those connections within seconds. 100 years ago, state economies were very much isolated and only the biggest companies expanded into different companies. Nowadays, everybody can setup a web shop within amazon and sell their good easily worldwide.

We still manage our teams like 70 years ago.

Most organisations are still built the way as we built them 70 years ago: Strong hierarchical decision making process within strictly functional departments. Bonus and kpi systems are not supportive for cooperation between departments. Therefore the cooperation towards the success of the company is little. General Motors is one example for such a management in the bubble. The engineers, marketers and sales persons could not fix the issues within their cars and the company struggled within the biggest economical crisis. Other companies such as Toyota already started to intriduce customer feedback in focus groups in the 50’s or 60’s.

Making sense of today’s complex environment

The questions nowadays should rather focus on how to make sense of today’s lack of predictability. How worthy is a plan, if you cannot predict the future? If your plan is input a, how can you ensure to get input b?

“Planning is everything, a plan is nothing!”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

If you are unsure, what to expect and you are unable to predict the future, your focus should be on learning. In nowaday’s complex encironment it is important to be able to adapt to ever changing environment. An agile mindset with a focus on small experiments will help you to achieve this.

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