Article: Stop Overengineering People Management by Peter Cappell, from the September–October 2020 Issue of Harvard Business Review
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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to explore questions about business and business practice. In the process of examining them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but one that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects. And by the way, if you want to learn more about how to work more closely with us, stay tuned at the end of the show.
I am Zac Swartout, and always with me is Carol Sanford, our inhouse positive contrarian. Who responds to big and hard questions with a radically different take.
Carol: Hi Zac,
Zac: Ok Carol, you picked the topic this time. So for background, we’re gonna do a bit of a dive into how organizations manage people. But my first question is why this one from Sept- October 2020 Issue of Harvard Business Review? Also so the folks at home can follow along this article is titled Stop Overengineering People Management by Peter Capelli. At first glance it looks like we have covered this topic before, you wrote a couple books about it, and even more articles. So spoiler alert, that this piece didn’t really work for me as a business owner. The author seemed to be saying hey look at all these new issues flooding into the business sphere like the gig economy, algorithms determining work design, and work design changes in response to COVID-19. And in response to all that let’s look at how we can mix Taylorism and Behaviorism (almost literally quoted in the article) for how we can solve these issues. But what got to you about this one? What seemed new?
Carol: The point about covering this topic is true. New eras recycle management theory. They don’t even evolve much, just repeat with polish. But that is the point. Why for decades, even centuries do all types of organizations alternate between two models— authoritarian and empowerment work design. And why do they always miss the way humans work, all together. I think it breaks my heart because it limits humans, organizations and life as we know it.
Zac: I see what you mean. No one is listening. The author alternates between, what they call here Theory X – which comes from Taylorism, and Theory Y – which comes from the beginnings of the human potential movement mixed with behaviorism without ever really even attempting to consider a third way. As a result the article doesn’t really move the conversation forward. It’s honestly disturbing to see the author actually attempt to validate aspects of the Taylorist approach here. He’s definitely playing both sides of a pretty unsavory fence – ultimately leaving the reader to only have two choices between humans being machines or needing to be rewarded with a way to contribute to keep them docile.
Ok Carol more importantly than ragging on this article, what can we do that might actually help that we have not already done so far?
Carol: What does this article suggest is the best way to design? So we can compare?
I think of giving three principles about how humans work and compare it to these two alternatives and a compromise they offer. Plus offer a philosophy that is never on the table
Zac: Got it, so your theory here is that our listeners could use the principles you’re gonna lay out to test their thinking about how humans work. So they take each principle and attempt to reconcile it to what’s on offer from the article. Then they can look to see if they are really thinking about humans as living beings rather than machines or rats?
Carol: What does this article suggest about how to handle this ricocheting between these two approaches?
Zac: For sure. So as I read this the author says here’s a bunch of new problems that the business world is grappling with, here are two dominant approaches to management theory, Taylorism and Behaviorism, and so you should look at both and pick what you like and give it a shot.
Carol: What do you see as the flaw in the suggestions they make?
Zac: In some ways the author could have started digging into some of these really important issues. But instead of pulling them apart to understand where they are coming from and how to grow peoples capacity to engage with them, he offers ideas like “It may be easier to ignore people, but we’re still here.” by misconstruing a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s The Piano Player. Which in the end leaves me doubly bummed out. It’s like he’s bought into the idea that humans are in the way of a businesses ultimate success and growth. This is so backwards I don’t even know where to start.
Carol: Both of these philosophies of managing people are missing three founding principles of Regenerative Work Design if they are to align with my ontology of human beings. That is how they can come to be more of who they are and express that into the world, therefore contribute more. Plus we are about to start a community at Carol Sanford Institute on how to build this nature of work design.
Zac, Can you track and share your comparison of the HBR article with the three principles.
Zac: Agreed. They’re missing a lot and I love working with comparisons as a way to build discernment. So what is the first one?
Carol: The first error the ideas offered in HBR piece make is the subject of the article, that is managing people. They get Internal and External backwards. The principle I offer is, Internal management is more effective in all measures to managing someone from the outside. In other words, having someone else, supervisors, parent, teacher, tell us what to do, how to do it and how well we did, versus having us learn to do that for ourselves. What is your experience with that in your life, Zac?
Zac: I’ve seen this all over the place in my 20 years in the business world. Take healthcare for example. In recent years managers have actually started employing algorithms as models for nurses to follow to engage in the care of patients. In other words, this symptom means this problem which means this diagnosis, which means this care plan which meets this set of goals for the hospital. It essentially obliterates the ability to care for someone when you see them as a set of problems that you need to get solved to free up a bed as soon as possible. Also it leads to untold numbers of mistreatments because it reduces the complexity of a human’s situation that of a car that won’t start. But Carol, this seems so obvious, how did we get this backwards and upside down and how can we fix it?
Carol: We humans seem to learn at a really slow pace and our ‘modern’ method of science is even slower. It always builds off of what we think we already know and references old theory. We don’t start from a living science. A way to understand life. We will never get to how things work, because all our science is dissection-based and built on what we already think we know. This is the current way of studying life. Study what already exists. Machine metaphors and Behaviorism, both are old science. And even neuroscience is with machines studying incremental behaviors of one variable at a time.
Zac: Yea that definitely lands from healthcare. It’s always about taking one initiative that is well intentioned but the solution always needs to show up in the form of an algorithm or it gets tossed out. So Carol, how do you break that cycle?
Carol: It is all held by current infrastructure in the mind and in the institution whether that is family, education institution, workplace, military, church or any institution.
Zac: So by, ‘in the mind’, you mean like mental models that frame what we see as possible, like using a framework where you can see different levels or approaches? So we have to see the mental model and change it, right? But what do you mean by infrastructure?
Carol: For mental models, I mean the internalized equivalent of an algorithm. Programmed thinking. Not thinking needs to be included. We have to move to Framework thinking/Frameworks tell us where to form questions and to do answering for that moment and situation. And for infrastructure, for example, work teams are almost always organized around functional activity, not what they are serving. So an assembly line or a coding group, or shift what we work on together. That team forms not only the infrastructure for working but it becomes the infrastructure for thinking, deciding—who decides and knows the important stuff, evaluating and even pay and promotion decisions. Can you see that at work?
Zac: Sure. So the author talks about agile/scrum teams here. In agile you have a product owner who holds the vision for the product by liaising between the software development team and the always amorphous “stakeholders”. Even though this tries to be a step forward it still displaces the connection to the user of the software away from the development team, often putting them at odds with the product owner. But Carol, what would be a different infrastructure?
Carol: I wrap primary teams around marketplace and specific fields, like a customer node. Where the effect of our work shows up. Those clusters of beneficiaries who share values and ways of making decisions. Which is another switch in infrastructure. From demographic, artificial, abstract grouping of age, race, number of children, to concrete, living based ways of thinking. The buyers and teams can then be aligned to create reciprocity in working. Further, you use the non-expert, non-authoritative infrastructure and build capability for people to be organized and self-responsible; from ideation, to decision making, to implementation and ultimately evaluation without externalizing the management to ‘the other authority’. Zac, How does that relate to, get missed, in our HBR article
Zac: Well it’s not even addressed in the article really. The author focuses strongly on lean management as a solution that takes something from both of the worlds he’s talking about. But this is all about productivity and quality and has nothing to do with customers and their lives. So in the end it’s still about external motivation through rewarding people with “empowerment”.
Carol: Humans, when emotionally connected to a beneficiary’s experience, can and will design a better approach than an authority can. We are hardwired to contribute. That is why we have the ability to connect with others, even if that is not well developed in most cases. But it can be. I create design teams that are wrapped around the benefit to the user. Their motivation will be high and tied to what is most important. With that as the principle, you start building capability to operate in that infrastructure that is based on how humans really work, rather than the infrastructure based on machine and behavioral theory. It is a capability restraint, not a ‘who manages who,’ one which is easy to reconcile if you see it that way.
Zac: So the first Principle is, ‘Individual internal management exceeds outcomes In all measures to managing someone from the outside.’ What is the second principle?
Carol: it is the opposite in reference point of the first one. That is, External measures internalize all effects for the stakeholder system. We usually measure everything at the point of work done.
Zac: Like the billiard ball in the pocket. The question here always being did we get into the right pocket in the right order and can we count it immediately?
Carol: Exactly. That is like keeping our eye on the moment and ignoring whether we are improving how to play the game or even asking if it is the right game to be playing. We want to move to measuring at the level of effects in the systems we are serving. What does the customer, Earth, community measure and what is the core contribution we do or can make to that. Not measuring at the level of our action, but our effects.
Zac: It’s interesting because this would have us focusing more on our ability to see the effects on climate, social justice, humans, and businesses. Where we are actually more likely to want to learn to pay attention to the right things. Which brings us back to our indirect, quantum way of working we talked about before.
Carol: It also calls on the business to develop capability for External Considering. In the Developmental Infrastructure pay and progression changes completely so that teams extend themselves into new arenas by committing to new effects and the process improvements mentioned in this article, but sourcing from workers within a strategic plan that is tied to the new effects. They initiate and commit to big contributions to these external stakeholder, not programs like circular, doughnut, sustainability economy, which someone else designs and manages in a separate department. The new infrastructure makes it internalized into the new teams way of working
Zac: It’s interesting because in the article, he talks about how the biggest issues that come up in an organization are because someone is getting paid more for the same title or position. Seems like your approach indirectly resolves much of that.
Carol: Oh, it does. Pay and progression is so different, and we’re not going to talk about that on a podcast at all. But it’s going to be part of the new community we’re building about how you build work designs that work from a quantum developmental infrastructure.
The third arena is shifting paradigms from working direct to working indirect. Then, to put in place what it takes to operate this way. We switch from away from an external and internal continuum to one that is direct versus indirect. Anything done in the external field of how the business works is done indirect. But the personal work is done both concretely, a different kind of direct, while guiding oneself within the unfolding indirect of development. And it is fully integrated by the individual by their choices in all things; not balancing but following the first two principles of New Infrastructure and New Measures.
Zac: So from my experience of working on being self-managing, the first principle means I need to work to manage me rather than seek to manage my own shortcomings in others. The second principle means that if the business measures external effects, that actually internalizes the effects within the business. So the business ends up measuring what matters to those it affects rather than itself.
Carol: Yes. This requires a shift of mental models of who is in charge, what infrastructure needs to be changed, how pay and progression, hiring, teaming, performance and everything else is designed. It is why we are starting a new community to learn to make this paradigm shift.
Zac: And it has nothing to do with flattening hierarchies, empowering people to make decisions in their current roles and business design, or changing what we incentivize people toward – or for that matter creating better delegating, and leadership of people externally. None of that!
Carol: True, instead, it has everything to with changing all the roles, where for example, supervisors become resources to mixed teams wrapped around markets, people initiating promises to specific customers, buyer or distributor nodes, to a new type of investor, which we will look at in the new Regenerative Governing Body Community. What would you say about the HBR article now and suggest they rethink and anyone who reads them to be more discerning about?
Zac: I’d encourage people to take these principles and read back over the article. Where do you see it falls short? And for that matter try another of your favorite business articles and bring these principles along with you to see what shows up there as well. Also Carol, can you say more about what does working indirectly means for our listeners?
Carol: Indirect means we are working ongoingly on developing capability with rituals sessions, that have improving critical thinking skills and personal self-managing as the foreground, not learning as side effects of shortfalls and accidental discovery. This principle is why we build communities, not networks. It means building new infrastructure that changes all the rituals in the organization so a different culture emerges and becomes fluid based on changes in the context we live in. We work on ensuring the capacity for greater and greater consciousness at multiple levels or worlds.
Zac: How do people join a community to learn about all we have talked about today?
Carol: Send me an email (email@example.com) for more info and check out CarolSanfordInstitute.com under offerings for Management Community.
So we have three principles:
Management is about internal ableness for everyone to be self-managing relative to a strategy and internal locus of control responsibility for that
Zac: Right, and measures are about external ableness to see our effects from an externally considering worldview.
Carol: And third, business work design and decision making is about working indirectly with changing developmental infrastructure that requires people to think to grow personal capability, about shifting the culture culture by having developmental infrastructure and processes, and working on consciousness, from reflection that is woven into all work that is done everywhere. That is where we want integration, not balancing between two pretty bad choices of optimizing strategies and behavioral strategies.
Carol: We have our Virtual 2020 Summit coming up November 17. Focus is The Regenerative Governing Board. Bring some or all your Board of Directors, or Advisory board, any one in a role of Governors or other similar bodies. Join The Regenerative Business Summit Nov 17. Webpage page has details RegenerativeBusinessSummit.com
Zac: The Summit is for Business Teams. But we have communities for individuals who play different roles. Communities for Entrepreneurs, Educators, Change Agents, Economic Shapers and more. Check out SEED-Coommunities.com.
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Business Second Opinion Podcast digs deep to answer questions about business and business practice, you may not know you need to ask. But we believe you should be asking for the benefit of your understanding and your businesses ethics and practice. In the process of answering them, we give you a second opinion, usually a contrarian opinion, but that is well tested and proven to give the outcomes you really want without the side effects.
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In today’s show, we examined:
This episode is helping us think about how humans work and why we never seem to get how to manage people to match. And why we cycle through different theories of management always missing the most effective one for human development, organizations that regenerate in changing times; and make society, democracy and ecosystems work.
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