This article was based on episode 053 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher.
I love best practices, but sometimes, even best practices become outdated.
In episode 53 of the Modern Manager, I speak with Aaron Dignan about modern management practices–the origins and the future. As the Founder of The Ready—a global organizational transformation and coaching practice—he helps companies large and small adopt new forms of self-organization and dynamic teaming.
For the past ten years, Aaron has studied organizations and teams with a new way of working that prioritizes adaptivity and autonomy over efficiency and control. Aaron contends that teams everywhere need to join them in the future of work.
THE MANAGER’S ROLE IN A MODERN ORGANIZATION
For decades, the ideal organization was an efficient one. Based on years of perfecting the work on factory floors, management gurus developed best practices that enabled efficient high quality, low variability production. In this context, it is the job of the manager to think, to review, and to decide, and the job of everyone else to execute.
Most of today’s work has little resemblance to the factory floor yet we still apply the same management approaches and assume the job of the manager is to create perfect execution. Aaron offers that the role of the manager in today’s workplace is to cultivate continually growing capability.
A manager’s role has changed because the nature of organizations and the market have changed.
Complicated vs Complex Systems
Although these words are often used interchangeably, they actually refer to different circumstances. A complicated system, such as a watch or an engine, can be understood and controlled. An expert could predict the outcomes of an interaction because, although robust, it's a system with reliable cause and effect.
Meanwhile, a complex system, like traffic or the weather, is dispositional. we know the general direction it's trending, but we can't be sure what will happen next. When interacting with a complex system, the response may or may not be what you expect.
In short, a problem can be solved in a complicated system: You can fix a watch. But a problem can't be solved in a complex system; it can only be managed.
ORGANIZATIONS ARE COMPLEX NOT COMPLICATED
The modern organization and market in which it competes are both complex systems. Adaptability, learning and agility are critical to future success and have become common buzzwords among leaders. Yet organizations have struggled to implement the practices which enable adaptability, learning and agility.
Aaron urges managers and leaders to build more steering (rather than controlling) mechanisms into our management system. In other words, do less annual planning and more dynamic planning. Empower employees to exercise judgment and learn along the way. That’s building capability.
THE INTERSECTION ANALOGY EXPLAINS IT ALL
Many organizations have undertaken change programs to become more agile or more entrepreneurial, yet few organizations truly are adaptive. Why?
In part it’s because humans and human systems are complex. Change isn’t straightforward. Aaron offers that it’s more than that. Businesses have underlying set of assumptions, principles, and practices that fundamentally shape what an organization is capable of. He calls this their “operating system.”
Two Kinds Of Operating Systems, Two Kinds of Organizations
Consider this analogy.
Two roads cross creating an intersection. The goal is to maximize the flow of traffic while minimizing the risk of accidents.
The first operating system starts with the assumption that people can't be trusted, that they need to be told what to do, that someone far away knows better than the people up close, that we need tight controls and constraints. These fundamental assumptions result in a lighted intersection.
Red, yellow, and green lights. Blinking arrows and signage. These require electricity, poles, and a whole control center that's analyzing the flow of traffic, and making decisions about who should go when. The job of the driver is to be compliant, to sit there waiting patiently to be told when to go. But that’s not what happens because the system doesn’t require drivers to be full present. So instead of paying attention to the system, people check their phones or otherwise check out mentally.
The second operating system assumes that drivers can be trusted, that they can be responsible, and that they can handle all that complexity with just two simple rules: Go with the flow of traffic and give the right of way to the cars already in the circle. With a roundabout, people are fully present. They must be mindful when you enter it, because the job that they’re doing is necessary, and the safety of everyone there depends on it.
No electricity, minimal signage, no additional infrastructure. Two completely different systems that accomplish the same goal.
WHAT’S STOPPING YOU FROM DOING THE BEST WORK OF YOUR LIFE?
Aaron believes that organizations can be designed and function like roundabouts, even if they currently operate like stop lights.
Start by asking each of your team members, “What's stopping you from doing the best work of your life?”
Ask big questions and you may get big answers that go beyond a single frustration. The hope is to uncover assumptions and fundamental principles that no longer serve the team (if they ever did!)
It’s your job to create a safe space for your team members to speak honestly about what’s holding them or the team back. If the responses you hear are too small or the equivalent of “everything is great,” you're not doing a good enough job of ensuring psychological safety. It’s not easy, but it’s essential.
Display your own vulnerability and ask for real candor. There are always things holding people back and once you’ve identified them, you can start to do something about them.
Join the Modern Manager community and get Aaron's OS Canvas and instructions for use, plus episode guides and additional guest bonuses, to support your journey to rockstar manager.
This article was based on episode 053 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.
You can also listen to every episode here.
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