Are you warming or others or burning them?

Photo by andrewmalone

In The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement by David Brooks, the author writes:

State power is like fire—warming when contained, fatal when it grows too large. In his view, government should not run people’s lives. That only weakens the responsibility and virtue of the citizens. But government could influence the setting in which lives are lived. Government could, to some extent, nurture settings that serve as nurseries for fraternal relationships. It could influence the spirit of the citizenry.

Reread it with the words “government” replaced by “management” and “citizens” replaced by “employees”:

Managerial power is like fire—warming when contained, fatal when it grows too large. In his view, management should not run people’s lives. That only weakens the responsibility and virtue of the employees. But management could influence the setting in which lives are lived. Management could, to some extent, nurture settings that serve as nurseries for fraternal relationships. It could influence the spirit of the employees.

I couldn’t have put it better. No to micro-management. Yes to creating environments that support relationships, human connection and practical wisdom. No to rules that are only mechanisms of control. Yes to boundaries that enable safe exploration and supports people where complete freedom and autonomy fails.

Simple but not simplistic. Hard to put into practice. It is much easier to try to control everything. It usually doesn’t work in the long-run.


Inner natural guidance

Photo by Pratham Books

I have been reading Tal Ben-Shahar’s fascinating book The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life and came across a reference to the Montessori Method of Education. As I was reading about it, I thought that it actually describes a big part of my approach to the practice of management. And as I wrote in the past, I believe that education and management are closely related (see for example here). I took a paragraph from Wikipedia describing the method and added the words manager and employee where teacher and child were originally written and this is what you get:

Applying this method involves the [teacher] manager in viewing the [child] employee as having an inner natural guidance for his or her own perfect self-directed development. The role of the [teacher] manager (sometimes called director, directress, or guide) is therefore to watch over the environment to remove any obstacles that would interfere with this natural development. The [teacher] manager‘s role of observation sometimes includes experimental interactions with [children] employees, commonly referred to as “lessons,” to resolve misbehavior or to show how to use the various [self-teaching] managerial materials that are provided in the environment for the [children] employee‘s free use.

Take away hurdles. No more rules but environments that support the development of practical wisdom. Experimentation and reflection.

I could not describe it better myself.



Experts and novices

Photo by Mai Le

Seth Godin has fascinating short post out today. He describes his own interpretation of The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. His conclusions:

1. Don’t talk to all your employees, all your users or all your prospects the same way, because they’re not the same.

2. If you treat an expert like a novice, you’ll fail.

I love point number one because I extensively write about it myself (for a summary, see here). The notion of equality must be banished from places it is not needed at. As Godin hints – in the area of marketing – and of course, in the area of managing people. If treat everybody the same we get cogs in a machine. The answer should be found in the idea of Equifinality. There are a lot of ways to reach success.  If we treat everybody according to their uniqueness we create variety which is beneficial. In the past, management practices were built on mechanisms of control that were intended to deal with heterogeneity. Today, this heterogeneity is need ingredient in the creation of innovation. We don’t need to control it, we need to embrace it.

But point number two is not less powerful. As I mention in my no more rules presentation, the use of rules and lose of judgment and practical wisdom is a short-run gamble for productivity. In the long run, only self-thinking, experts how develop practical wisdom through trial and error could produce tangible innovative, human connecting results. When you treat somebody like a novice, you are sacrificing his or her future ability because you prevent him from developing the qualities you need the most.



When should a manager force employees to do things they don’t want to do?

Photo by alancleaver_2000

Dan Ariely wrote an interesting post about the Chilean pension system that mandates savings by all citizens. Not surprisingly, Ariely calls the post: “Want People to Save? Force Them”. This connects with an earlier post by Ariely (which I also wrote about) that discussed an experiment which showed  that by limiting the list of questions people could use to engage in a conversation, deeper and more meaningful conversations were brought to life.

These two posts got me thinking. In this blog I write a lot about rules in management and about how managers should let go of the mechanisms of control. I generally believe that the basic concepts Dan Pink presents in his book, Drive, of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are three of the most important tools managers have in their disposal.

At the same time, I do believe that sometimes, managers should force some processes on their employees. Just like people are bad at saving and need to be made to save, because in the longer-term it is better for them, there are things employees would not do and need a manager to force them. Engaging in more meaningful conversations is a great example. And if we can do that by designing the rules of the meeting differently (for example), this is an important tool that managers should use.

This is a very difficult conclusion for me as it goes against many of my personal beliefs about liberty and the importance of choice (more on this unrelated subject – see here). But I do believe that great leaders and managers know how to walk the line between allowing autonomy and forcing people to engage in some important paternalistic processes. I don’t have a complete list of these instances, but I am planning to start thinking more and more about this subject.

Any ideas? In what issues do you think managers should force employees to do things for their own long-term benefits?



Shorts: Amar Bhidé on the deference of human judgment in favor of computer models.

Today, I heard Ideacast titled Bringing Judgment Back to Finance where Amar Bhidé, author of a recent HBR article The Judgment Deficit and of a book titled A Call for Judgment: Sensible Finance for a Dynamic Economy was interviewed about the ideas in his article and book.

It is a fascinating cast and I would let you listen to it. I wanted to point to what in my view was the main idea. Over-reliance on computer models, both in finance and in other areas of life, is dangerous. While computer models and arithmetic based rules are important, they should not replace human judgment.

I must admit that when I prepared my No More Rules! presentation and wrote the MIX hack under the same title, I haven’t even considered cases where the rules are no man-made, but computer made. This, of course, leads to a different set of complexities (Hey, this is what the computer says). I think however, that the message is the same. We need people who think, how develop skill, judgment and practical wisdom. Rules, guidelines and arithmetic models are tools that should help human make decision, not replace them.

Interesting stuff!



To fail forward

Photo by KaiChanVong


Jeff Stibel in an blog post titled Avoid Decisions, Avoid Life, writes:

To fail forward, you must create many decisions, each incrementally improving your businesses. This is the opposite of a Six Sigma discipline and probably has no place on an assembly line (or a surgery bed). But it drives many companies forward, as they become enabled to make calculated decisions that lead to learning, growth, and ultimately success. Success by failure is not an oxymoron.

For me, Stibel’s explanation touches to the heart of the difference between the management approach of the old economy (efficiency, standardization, productivity and thus – rules!) and the new economy (effectiveness, value through human interaction, creativity, practical wisdom and thus – no more rules!).

As usual, I am not saying that Six Sigma (or all productivity driven approaches) is a bad idea or that is should never be implemented. I am just saying that the foundations on which Six Sigma (and similar methods) is built on are not fit for more and more of the challenges modern business are facing.

Failure (and more importantly, learning from failure) is the heart of innovation as it is at the heart of developing practical wisdom. If we don’t want people to become cogs, we need to create an atmosphere that promotes failing forward. Many business today depend on their people’s passion, creativity and initiative. By implementing, as Stibel says, the opposite discipline, there is slim chance of tapping into these resources.



Brain science supports the notion of No More Rules!

Photo by


I haven’t touched the issue of No More Rules! for a while now (link straight to the presentation). But something I came across last week reminded me of it. It turns out that a couple of years ago, two scientists did an interesting experiment that links directly to my claim.

They studied Jazz musicians while they improvised their music. Jazz improvisation is unique in that it demands a lot of creativity to play as it is distinct in style and in the way it is played. They compared those people to people who played regular music, out of notes. What they studied was their brains.

It turns out, that when the musicians improvised, thus needing creativity, the areas associated with creativity in their brains lighted up. When they played what on the notes in front of them, the areas in their brain associated with following rules lighted up. Up to this point, there were no surprises. However, what was surprising was that when the musicians improvised, the areas in their brain that are associated with following rules, not only did not light up, they showed decreased activity. As if in order to improvise and be creative, you need to let go of the rules and inhibitions. Here is a short paragraph from a summary from the Johns Hopkins website:

The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview. Shutting down this area could lead to lowered inhibitions, Limb suggests

Those of you who have been following my writings about rules and how they inhibit practical wisdom and creativity which are the building blocks of the current economy are already nodding in understanding of the implications of this research.

How do we expect our people to be creative and generate value when we keep surrounding them with rules and inhibitions? Now, it is not only logic and behavioral experiments supporting my claim, it is also brain science.