A recent twitter spat led me to some reflections, and I thought I’d share. In short, an individual I do not know attacked one of my colleague Harold’s diagrams, and said that they stood against “everything classical and rigorous”. My somewhat flip comment was that “the classical and rigorous is also outdated and increasingly irrelevant. Time for some new thinking”. Which then led to me being accused of spreading BS. And I don’t take kindly to someone questioning my integrity. (I’m an ex-academic after all! 😉 I thought I should point out why I said what I said.
Theories change. We used to believe that the sun circled the earth, and that the world was flat. More relevantly, we used to have management theories that optimized using people as machines. And typical business thinking is still visible in ways that are hierarchical and mechanical. We continue to see practices like yearly reviews, micromanagement, incentives for limited performance metrics, and curtailed communication. They worked in an industrial age, but we’re in a new environment, and we’re finding that we need new methods.
And, let me add, these old practices are not aligned with what we know about how our brains work. We’ve found that the best outcomes come from people working in environments where it’s safe to share. Also, we get better results when we’re collaborating, not working independently. And better outcomes occur when we’re given purpose and autonomy to pursue, not micromanagement. In short, many of the classical approaches, ones that are rigorously defined and practiced, aren’t optimal.
And it’s not just me saying this. Respected voices are pointing in new directions based upon empirical research. In XLR8, Kotter’s talking about leveraging more fluid networks for innovation to complement the hierarchy. In Teaming, Edmondson is pointing to more collective ways to work. And in Scaling Up Excellence, Sutton & Rao point to more viral approaches to change rather than the old monolithic methods. The list goes on.
Rigor is good. Classical, in the sense of tested and proven methods, is good. But times change, and our understanding expands. Just yesterday I listened to Charles Reigeluth (a respected learning design theorist) talk about how theories change. He described how most approaches have an initial period where they’re being explored and results may not be optimal, but you continue to refine them and ultimately the results can supersede previous approaches. Not all approaches will yield this, but it appears to me that we’re getting convergent evidence on theoretical and empirical grounds that the newer approaches to business, as embodied in stuff like Harold’s diagrams and other representations (e.g. the Revolution book), are more effective.
I don’t knowingly push stuff I don’t believe is right. And I try to take a rigorous approach to make sure I’m avoiding confirmation bias and other errors. It’s got to align with sound theory, and pass scrutiny in the methodology. I try to be the one cutting through the BS! I stand behind my claim that new ways of working are an improvement over the old ways. Am I missing something?