If you’re a professional manager, here’s a question for you: What’s the obstinate, knotty management problem you’re working to solve—the one that bedevils your organization, that lies beyond the boundaries of best practice, and has no obvious solution? In other words, are you working on anything that might advance the state of the art in a fundamental way? Are you aiming to fundamentally improve the technology we use to mobilize human resources to productive ends—that is, the technology of management? If no, why not?
Geneticists hope to dramatically improve human health—by untangling the complexities of the genome. Computer scientists work to radically extend the limits of human capability—by creating machines that can think, learn and feel. Cosmologists struggle to put human existence in context—by illuminating the deep history and potential future of our universe. Physicists seek to give human beings more control over their physical environment—by delving into the structure and rules of the material world. Engineers devote themselves to improving the human condition in countless ways—by reducing CO2 emissions, making solar energy economical, improving the world’s access to clean water, multiplying agricultural yields, producing safer vehicles, inventing technologies that connect us to each other, and so on. Social activists commit themselves to advancing human progress on other fronts—by alleviating poverty, reducing illiteracy, expanding religious freedoms, or improving access to education and health care.
So what about us managers? What are the momentous challenges that enthrall us? What are the worthy and weighty problems we intend to solve on behalf of all humanity? As managers what’s our equivalent to the “1000 Genomes Project”, to CERN’s bold plan for experimentation in particle physics, to the fourteen “grand challenges” highlighted by the National Academy of Engineering, to the goal of equipping every child with a laptop , or to the multi-faceted campaign to end modern slavery?
As managers, we are responsible for running the machinery of bureaucracy in organizations large and small. But why do most of us seem so disinterested in fundamentally reinventing that technology? Why are we so often satisfied with “best practice,” when we should be inventing bold new practices?
Let’s not pretend that the status quo is good enough. As I argued in an earlier post, organizations around the world are increasingly faced with a set of challenges that lie outside the performance envelope of management-as-usual. A few of the most pressing . . .
Adaptability: In a world that is all punctuation and no equilibrium, organizations of all sorts must become as adaptable and resilient as they are focused and efficient. The problem: Typical management processes reflexively favor more of the same and discourage pre-emptive change.
Innovation: In globalized markets, where companies must compete with “everyone from everywhere for everything” as the 2008 book “Globality” puts it, across-the-board innovation is the only protection from the Schumpeterian winds of creative destruction. The problem: Most management processes were built to promote conformance and alignment rather than contrarian thinking and bold experimentation.
Engagement: In the “creative economy,” where knowledge advantages are fleeting and entrepreneurial genius is the key to value creation, institutional success depends on the willingness of employees to bring the gifts of initiative, imagination and passion to work each day. The problem: Traditional management systems, while good at compelling obedience and harnessing expertise, typically fail to engage the emotional and spiritual energies of employees.
Social Consciousness: In an age where executives are widely perceived as selfish and socially irresponsible, there is a growing pressure on commercial organizations to be more proactive in helping to advance social goals. The problem: Legacy management models often perpetuate a dangerously narrow view of corporate interests, and encourage managers to adopt a defensive posture when confronted with new stakeholder demands.
In light of these challenges, why isn’t the average executive fully committed to reinventing the work of management root and branch? Why isn’t every organization experimenting boldly and systematically with new ways of setting goals, allocating resources, making decisions, coordinating tasks, motivating employees, and measuring progress? Maybe the pressure for a radical overhaul isn’t yet acute enough. Maybe we don’t know how to reinvent management without creating short-term chaos. Maybe many of us aren’t sure there really is an alternative to management as we know it. Maybe we just don’t think it’s our problem.
Whatever the excuse, or the impediment, one thing’s clear: big breakthroughs are possible only when we throw ourselves at big problems. This is true for medicine, physics, engineering and social progress—and it’s true for management, as well. It is not precedent that enslaves us, but our own timidity.
With all this in mind, a group of contrarian thinkers and progressive CEOs convened for two days last spring to begin the work of defining a bold agenda for management innovation. (Read the attendee list here.) The conclave was organized by The Management Lab, a non-profit organization I co-founded that supports the work of management innovation around the world. McKinsey & Company provided financial support and helped with program planning. In a series of pre-conference interviews, each of the 35 participants was asked two questions:
What is it about the way large organizations are structured, managed and led that most impairs their capacity to adapt, innovate, and engage, and/or limits their social value-added?
Given that, what bold goals would you set for 21st century management innovators?
The results of these interviews were circulated to all the attendees in advance and then vigorously debated over the course of the conference. The end product, which emerged weeks later after several rounds of post-event synthesis, was a roster of 25 “moonshots for management”—ambitious objectives for reinventing the who, what and how of management. I’ll share these moonshots in a subsequent post, and give you a chance to assess their relative importance.
In the interim, I’d invite you to reflect on the two questions note above and then nominate your own “moonshots” for management innovation. We’ll see how your views compare with those of our veteran management thinkers.