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Weekly Column

Leadership: Post-industrial management requires a different skill set

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By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Last week’s column on bad IT management and the strong response from readers that followed show this to be a huge issue. There are WAY too many IT managers who either can’t or shouldn’t manage technical teams. Last week I maintained that having a firm technology base, or at least the ability and willingness to acquire one, was essential for good managers. While readers got carried away with which technical test is the best, I don’t think there is much dispute that there are certain aspects of technical management that are helped by the manager being a code god. But that’s far from all there is to the job. So this week I want to go deeper and look at what’s really missing in nearly every instance of such bad management, which is leadership.

The distinction between management and leadership is a critical one. Management is — at its very best — an exercise in coping while leadership is so much more. Last week’s simple idea that the manager ought to at least be able to tell good work from bad is exemplified by Bill Gates, who liked to claim that he could tell good code from across the room and that whatever task a team was facing was something he could code in Visual Basic over a weekend. Both statements are nonsense, of course, but Bill knew he had to talk the talk, making him at least an adequate manager.

Does it make him a leader? I don’t think so. But let’s not blame Bill for that. Let’s blame Charles Simonyi.

Charles is the guy who came up with Microsoft’s development process — an outgrowth of his research at Xerox PARC. I covered this extensively in my book, Accidental Empires, but the short version is that Charles came to advocate a strong program manager as the central controller of any development group. One person made all the decisions and as long as that one person was correct 85 percent of the time, it was better to have a dictatorship than a democracy or even a meritocracy. This was an effective way to extend Bill’s will to Microsoft programmers Bill would never even meet. And to Charles’ credit the system worked well enough if the dictator was really, really smart and the task at hand wasn’t too complex. It was perfect for the 1980s.

But it is far from perfect today and represents one of the fundamental reasons why Windows Vista was so late to market and such a mess when it finally shipped. Vista had plenty of management, but not very much leadership.

When I think of leaders what comes to mind first are political and military leaders. We use the term “leadership” to describe those roles far more than we do for what ought to be similar roles in business or technology. This week former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina said that John McCain, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, and Joe Biden were all ill-suited to be CEOs of major corporations. However badly the statement went over (Carly supports McCain, by the way), her real point was that there are different skill sets for leaders than managers. And she’s right to an extent, but it also says a lot about her own tenure at H-P, which was long on management and short on leadership.

Management is telling people what to do, which is a vital part of any industrial economy. Leadership is figuring out what ought to be done then getting people to do it, which is very different. It is a vital part of any successful post-industrial economy, too, but most managers don’t know that.

Let’s use the U.S. military involvement in Iraq as an example of the difference between leadership and management. As more books are written and stories come out we can see that there is a lot of arguing that goes on inside the military. Officers are onboard or not. They are proposing various strategies and taking positions generally advocating what’s perceived as safest for both the mission they have accepted and the preservation of life among their troops. Eventually someone makes or imposes an order, but even then there is a lot of second-guessing in the military, which has to be ready with Plans B through G just in case they are needed. This is a lot different from the image many of us have of General Patton pointing toward Berlin, imposing a singular view and forcing it through.

In contrast to the military, most businesses do a lot less explaining and pondering and a lot more laying down edicts. That’s management, which works fine on an assembly line, but not at all well building a big software application or winning a war.

Janna Raye is someone I worked with at InfoWorld half a lifetime ago who has built a consulting career on understanding this stuff and helping companies to transcend 20th century corporate hierarchies and become what she calls “fractal organizations.” Janna’s consulting business is called Strategems and here is her take on this issue:

“Modern corporations suffer from systemic-level issues that emerge in top-down hierarchies. Managers are there to control staff and budgets, not to lead. Although you can make valiant and often successful attempts to control things and processes, you will never again be able to control people. We’ve evolved, basically, and the information age has had a lot to do with it. So we still “manage” companies the same way as when we actually operated assembly lines in America—the good old days! Now, people need leaders, not managers, and that’s what a fractal organization enables.

“In fractal organizations, it’s the staff deciding how to continuously improve processes in their functional areas for efficiency of time and resources. These organizations thrive with a new pay model also, based upon results or value of work delivered and not how much time it takes to do the task. Those who are really good will get to go home early! These are not the organizations that are shrinking. Like galaxies, they continue to expand, actually aided by a strong gravitational pull of the leaders at the center. Those who do it well create a compelling vision and keep it alive. They allocate resources to projects that align with the vision, and reward arm- and team-cluster leaders for the creative ideas their staff bring to the organization. It’s a shared vision and collective goals that are missing from the vast majority of organizations, which is why failing projects continue to drain resources. Really caring about what you do and feeling proud to be a part of something special and wonderful is what every human desires, even if they say they don’t.”

So what’s Janna’s model for the ideal 21st century organization? Pixar.

“They let creativity run wild at Pixar!” says Janna. “Ed Catmull, Pixar’s president, wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review on their collective creativity. Ed and John Lasseter (and sometimes Steve Jobs) are in the center of the galaxy, keeping the gravitational pull strong and the company rotating, so to speak. Around them are the directors, who in the fractal org model lead the arms (no more divisions!). Each film team or cluster, from the storyboard artists to the renderers, goes through the iterations necessary to achieve the best results. Everyone is on board with creating exemplary films and they are relentless in demanding only the best. But in this process, as they say, they have to get all the “sucky” ideas out first. If they don’t reveal all the ideas, they don’t get all the perspectives and therefore might miss something important. In quantum physics and information theory, this relates to the observer effect and the importance of acknowledging the perspective influence of everyone in a scene.

“In top-down hierarchies, the opposite occurs, yet the people on the front lines are the ones dealing with the evolutionary changes going on around them and are the best source of ideas for solving tactical issues. You wouldn’t need “change management” if you made continuous improvements at the functional level the responsibility of every individual and team cluster. Yet Pixar makes incredible films in this manner, so you could certainly accomplish it anywhere, even in a supermarket! In fact, some of Whole Foods’ leadership practices are fractal — in-store teams make decisions about products and their placement, based on their observations of customer patterns.

“Most start-ups are fractal in their nature, especially those that have exciting visions and get everyone on the same page with collective purpose, goals, and objectives. Most investors, however, are bought into the conventional org chart; when the company devolves into top-down, the turnover begins. That’s because of the internal competition that emerges in top-down organizations. The perception is that there’s only so much room at the top. At each level of management, the competition increases as cooperation decreases. Thus are created the ubiquitous “silos” of information that thwart collaboration and encourage redundant, wasteful business practices.

“Managers are supposedly promoted because of their ability to outperform others and not because of an intention to provide inspiration, guidance, and mentoring to their staff, nor are they openly rewarded for this behavior, even though it usually produces a healthier bottom line. The usual way of rewarding based upon meeting financial goals and managing budgets keeps the focus on short-term financial results only, whereas continuous improvement leadership by frontline staff creates more long-term successes.

“When managers don’t mentor staff, focusing only upon numbers and bossing people around, it leads to an illusion of control, of which there’s no such thing. In these situations, they begin to feel they must continually prove their worthiness and so defend their territories against possibly brilliant staff working “beneath” them. This is a systemic issue, not a personality quirk, though some personalities are more susceptible than others. In most companies, the idea of climbing over others on your way to the top and throwing people who get in your way under buses is de rigueur. The top-down hierarchy was designed to manage industrial-age processes, not information-age challenges. You didn’t want the door guy getting creative when attaching the door. Nor did he need to collaborate with the bumper dude. The information age is vastly different. Each scene we’re in presents new circumstances and opportunities.

“Pixar claims they have a meritocracy. This is a good description of the atmosphere that emerges in fractal organizations. Google was likely more fractal in the beginning, before they brought in managers trained in top-down hierarchies and engrained with the accompanying behavioral patterns, such as knee-jerk resistance to ideas they haven’t thought of themselves. Not everyone is like this, of course, but usually those who aren’t have had confident mentors themselves who encouraged creative participation. In Catmull’s HBR article, he says they insist that everyone in the company contribute ideas, across all functions and levels, or they will perish. Interestingly, he mentions the difficulty in getting new hires to feel comfortable with this process. This results from cultural-level systems that keep people in competition rather than cooperation. Though Catmull tells readers what they do at Pixar and why, he doesn’t instruct on how to make the organizational changes that enable this approach to creativity.”

I guess that last part is Janna’s job.

All this fractal stuff is interesting, but I’m guessing it is also difficult to implement, because it may describe Pixar but it DOESN’T accurately describe Apple — the other place where Steve Jobs is king. Still, Apple’s product success shows that something is being transferred from one company to the other. It’s just that at Apple, Steve Jobs can’t make himself stay out of the way.

Comments from the Tribe

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I would do a search and replace on the notion of the code god. The code god has the obvious problem that gods are infallible, or at least not mortal, and they are susceptible to hubris. Hubris in software can be (paradoxically) quite deadly. More to the point, in good software the code is not all that important. The architecture is what matters. So I would replace "code god" with "architect."

Add a quarter cup of curiosity and two table spoons of humor and you now have the recipe.

Demian Entrekin | Oct 09, 2008 | 11:35PM
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