Not Even Wrong – Why transparency might just be your number one organization health check metric 3

November 2014
Stockholm – Pappas Deli

Let’s talk for a while about knowledge work. And let’s start with the tricky task of defining it. The term was coined by the great Peter Drucker back in the 1950’s, and was then used to describe the growing sector in the workforce who did not perform what was referred to as “manual labour”. One of the more useful definitions comes from researcher Thomas Davenport. He says:

“Knowledge workers have high degrees of expertise, education, or experience, and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution or application of knowledge.”

Another definition that I like is: “knowledge workers are paid to think”. And someone offered this definition: (the source escapes me, will correct further on):

“the primary task of knowledge work is ‘non-routine’ problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking”.

Which also sounds about right.

We also know that in knowledge work, managers are not necessarily any better than the “workers” at whatever the workers do. The reason why this is, is that seniority has nothing to do with it. One might assume that a senior person has, during the years, assembled a toolkit and developed some capabilities that facilitate the knowledge work “process”. But that this possibility make our seniors better at this than the rest of us is a dangerous assumption to make. Newton was 26 when he invented the reflective telescope.

Now with this background, consider an organization where managers take pride in having “hired people smarter than themselves” – and then they lock themselves away and do all the heavy thinking for these bright people. There’s something not right about that.

We can examine this from a number of angles. The first obvious one that comes to mind for me is to examine the sincerity of the statement “we hire people smarter than ourselves”. If that’s just something we say, but don’t actually think, well, then no further debate is necessary. But let’s for the sake of this post assume that what is said is what is meant.

In the light of this, I’d like to talk about the thinking that goes on at the higher levels of organizations. I’d like to talk about the high level problem solving and creative thinking exercise known as strategy.

So I’ve been pondering: The people who do take it upon themselves to think and create strategy, are they in any demonstrable way better at this than the “workers” are. With little evidence other than personal experience, I’d say no.

I have at times – and I readily admit that this is a bit edgy – claimed that with an identical decision making process and identical information, a team of high schoolers and a management team would come to identical decisions. This is a statement intended to provoke thought. If you’re on a management team and read this and feel a bit miffed, please approach this statement in the spirit that it’s delivered. With a smile and a poke in the ribs.

Now, it might very well be the case that the people who develop strategy are not demonstrably the best people for the task at hand. Admittedly they’re senior, which means high on domain knowledge, high on experience and so forth, It says nothing, though, about level of competence in the field of “thinking”. And please don’t confuse any provess, or lack thereof, in the art of thinking, with intelligence. I’m certainly not calling anyone unintelligent.

So why is strategy the domain of “top management”? Could it be a consequence of this question of seniority which we discussed? Is it a matter of education? Is it perhaps not a question of being better at it, just a question of division of labour? Or is the feedback loop on strategy simply so long that there’s a division of “long term – short term” thinking? One team to strategize another to execute?

I don’t know. But one explanation, I think, can be found in the “organization-as-family” metaphor.

In this organizational mindset the perpetual struggle will be the one between giving away and retaining control. Between parents and children. Between top management and the rest. This is why I feel that “level of transparency” is the most promising metric to observe, as this signals that the organization has willingly given away the only reason I can find why strategy remains the domain of top management. Let me explain.

In an organization living the family metaphor, teenage rebellion will happen, and top level management will find themselves under fire with questions. When this happens, the frontier will become visible: information advantage. Full transparency would obliterate this advantage, and with it would disappear the super weapon of arguments, the show stopper of resourceful use of minds: “there are things that you’re unaware of that influence this situation”. This of course, is not a far cry from “You’ll understand this when you get older”

If all information is available to everyone, such claims cannot be made. The question then becomes: why not open up the books and let everyone have the information they need so that they can contribute? We know that more minds is better than less.

My theory then: because information advantage is the only advantage left that can motivate this organizational setup. It is the last remnants of power. And those who have power and have been enjoying the benefits that comes with it, are understandably reluctant to give it away.

The road forward that I’d like to propose is to let knowledge workers do their stuff, have all the information that they need, and then propose to top management a selection of scenarios or possible ways forward, regarding basically all aspects of the organization. Then let the final decision rest with top management. This would mean the letting go of control to an acceptable extent. Let the thinkers think and amaze you with their findings, then all the management team has to do is to be “the deciders”. This means that they’re still ultimately responsible for the decisions made, while the quality of these decisions can be improved and the frustrations that come with teenage rebellion can be dampened.

This is why transparency might be your number one health metric. The more of it you have, the further you have evolved as an organization.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

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