Management "Moonshots." Really?


Gary Hamel's recent Management 2.0 blog at WSJ.com features his ideas for "Management Moonshots" -- 25 ambitious and radical ideas that will significantly improve business management in the future. Frankly, I wasn't terribly impressed.

Some of the ideas are important, but already widely recognized, like "expanding and harnessing diversity" and "reducing fear and increasing trust." Other ideas are just turgid, jargon-laden, consultant-speak, like "de-structuring and disaggregating the organization." (Huh? Where was he when Citigroup and AIG were building themselves into "too big to fail" institutions? Probably preaching about economies of scale.)

But what really struck me was prevalence of ideas that are a fundamental and widely-practiced aspect of lean thinking. Check out these "moonshot" ideas:

Share the work of setting direction.
To engender commitment, the responsibility for goal-setting must be distributed through a process where share of voice is a function of insight, not power.

This sure sounds like John Shook's argument of leading by influence, not by title. (Read more about that in his new book, Managing to Learn. And take a look at the lessons of WL Gore & Associates, a company committed to avoiding management by title.)

Expand the scope of employee autonomy.
To become more adaptable and innovative, companies will have to substantially enlarge the freedom of front-line employees to collaborate, experiment, and initiate change. Management systems that systematically sacrifice freedom for discipline will have to be re-engineered.

Isn't this what workers in lean organizations do everyday, when they're solving problems, eliminating waste, and improving processes? Talk to the nurses at the University of Michigan, or the hygienists at Dr. Sami Bahri's dental office.

Further unleash human imagination.
In democratizing the tools of innovation, the Internet has unleashed a tidal wave of human creativity. Managers must learn from this, and do much more to equip employees at all levels with the tools and skills they need to be inspired business innovators.

I'm not sure that human creativity needs the internet to be unleashed, any more than an assembly line needs an expensive electronic andon system instead of a bunch of laminated red and green pieces of paper. And in any event, you can see creativity unleashed every time a worker comes up with a way to make the system flow a little bit better.

No offense to Professor Hamel, but It's astonishing at how often the concept of actually using the brains attached to the hands you've hired is dusted off and trotted out as some sort of revolutionary new wave of management. Companies like Gorton's Seafood, Wahl, Danaher, Barry-Wehmiller, to say nothing of Toyota, have been doing this for years. Now suddenly we get the collective insight of the luminous "management scholars and practitioners" at a McKinsey conference  telling us that indeed, using the talents and knowledge of our employees will make companies more competitive.  Thanks. That's some "moonshot."

Look, I'm just a joker passing himself off as some kind of consultant who might be able to help people become more productive. I'm not in the same league as Gary Hamel and the rest of the brain-the-size-of-a-planet crowd that attend these management conferences. And I'm certainly not in the same class as people who actually, you know, run companies and deal with employees. But jeez, some things are so self-evident that you really don't need a conference at the Ritz-Carlton to figure them out. 

I'm not saying that engaging employees is necessarily easy. Just that you don't need a moonshot to figure them out.

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