Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ever wonder why managers don't think deeply? It turns out, it's not their fault

Donna Nebenzahl, The Gazette

Published: 8 hours ago

"The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones."

- John Maynard Keynes

One of the most fascinating developments in Harvard University's online business magazine, Working Knowledge, is the kind of responses that come in when the magazine posts a topic for online debate.

This was the case recently, when the question of why managers don't think deeply was raised by Harvard Business School emeritus professor James Heskett. He referred specifically to Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric, who had made news after saying publicly he would foster "imagination breakthroughs" by encouraging managers to think deeply about innovations.

Why was this such big news, Heskett asked?

He proposed that a new book, Marketing Metaphoria by Gerald and Lindsay Zaltman, held some answers to the difficulty in promoting deep thinking in the workplace, among them the reluctance to take risks, fear of disrupting the status quo and the cost of changing paths. All amount to fear of failure, basically, and concern that if mistakes are made, the manager who tried to affect change would shoulder the blame.

Plus, of course, the difficulty of thinking deeply when there's no one around with whom to share and develop insights.

But we've got to move into deeper thinking, argue the Zaltmans, because all individuals, whether they're on the receiving end of marketing strategies or workplace ideas, identify with deep notions like balance, transformation, the journey of life, connection and so on.

All of these can be used for understanding a market segment or for resolving a conflict because they focus on what we have in common rather than how we differ.

What, asked Heskett to the online community, "is your organization doing to combat the absence of deep thinking in decision-making?"

"Isn't it obvious?" responded the principal in a consulting firm.

"To rise through middle management to executive positions usually requires that managers display the ability and willingness to deploy the ideas and directives of those in positions of greater authority.

"Those who demonstrate independent thinking are usually perceived as threats. Those who generate thought and use deep or reflective thought in their work world are often discouraged when exposed to requirements of being a middle manager.

"They tend to either be moved around laterally or self select away from hierarchical systems. Hence, what rises to the top levels are very productive and very diligent individuals who tend not to think or reflect and are extremely efficient at deploying other people's ideas."

One project manager put it this way: "Being in this kind of environment for a long period of time is stifling and results in all types of dysfunctionality."

Another response, from a senior business analyst: "In most organizations, management and leadership are task oriented ,rather than business oriented. They are reactive rather, than proactive. Can you blame it on managers alone? Leadership is more responsible for such culture prevailing in the organization.

"To promote creativity you have to create a culture by giving the right incentives to your resources to encourage them to think creatively and with every achievement gain further confidence to think out of the box."

The problem of short-term thinking was often raised among the 134 respondents.

"Companies are always trying to make the next quarter better than the previous," wrote a businessman from Pakistan.

"The action-oriented, transaction-driven corporate world gives very little acceptance to executives being self-reflective," argued a company owner from Australia. "Too swamped by operational tasks, they tend to manage in the moment - it is the doing-trap."

It is these in-the-moment actions that end up blocking change, he wrote.

"So what appears to be resistance or inertia is really a personal assumption that keeps people acting in a certain way."

But there is a new reality in business today, which often makes it impossible for an executive to be in control of a situation.

"In essence, they need the capacity to patiently work with uncertainty, half-knowledge, ambiguity and paradox."

(The Gazette, Canada)

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