David Burkus on “Under New Management”: An interview by Bob Morris

Burkus, DavidDavid Burkus is a best-selling author, an award-winning podcaster, and management professor. In 2015, he was named one of the emerging thought leaders most likely to shape the future of business by Thinkers50, the world’s premier ranking of management thinkers.

His latest book, Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual, reveals the counterintuitive leadership practices that actually enhance engagement and drive performance in companies. He is also the author of The Myths of Creativity. David is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and Forbes. His work has been featured in Fast Company, Inc., the Financial Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and on CBS This Morning.

David’s innovative views on leadership have earned him invitations to speak to leaders from a variety of organizations. He’s delivered keynote speeches and workshops for Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Stryker; at in-demand conferences such as SXSW and TEDx events; and to governmental leaders and military leaders at the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Postgraduate School. He’s also the host of the award-winning podcast Radio Free Leader.

When he’s not speaking or writing, David is in the classroom. He is associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on organizational behavior, creativity and innovation, and strategic leadership. David was recently named one of the “Top 40 under 40 Professors Who Inspire.” He serves on the advisory board of Fuse Corps, a nonprofit dedicated to making transformative and replicable change in local government.

David lives in Tulsa with his wife and their two sons.

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Morris: Before discussing Under New Management, a few general questions. Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Burkus: I love this one because it highlights the power of good questions. As I discussed in my previous book, we like to think of great insights as coming in a flash…but more often it’s a slow hunch while we investigate a new question.

Morris: From T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Burkus: I agree. I think part of what motivated me to write the new book was how fascinated I was by corporate and entrepreneurial leaders who were looking at their company and their workplace with fresh eyes….which led to fresh questions…which then led to fresh insights.

Morris: From John Steinbeck: “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Burkus: I talked about this a bit in my first book, that all ideas are combinations of preexisting ideas. So as ideas merge, clash, and otherwise combine, you end up with a whole new deck of ideas from which to draw.

Morris: From John Cage: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

Burkus: YES! Admittedly, I’d not heard this quote until now but I love it. It highlights the thesis of Under New Management….that the old ideas are causing all sorts of damage. The new ideas might seem scary, but they are better than business as usual.

Morris: My own rather extensive involvement with change initiatives suggests that those who defend the status quo tend to have been among the leaders to replace the previous one. Based on what you have observed, is this generally true? Please explain.

Burkus: I don’t have any solid data for it, but in my experience it tends to be true. With the caveat that those who rose to power through the old system are also interested in keeping it…whether or not it replaced a previous way of working or not.

Morris: In a previously published book, you discuss several “myths of creativity.” In your opinion, what are the most enduring – and troublesome – myths about leadership? What, in fact, is true?

Burkus: The most damaging to organizations is probably what I call “the mouse trap myth,” from the maxim “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” In reality, if you built a better mousetrap, the world probably won’t notice or might reject it. In fact, creative new ideas get rejected all the time.

The truth is that humans have a cognitive bias against the new and original ideas. The best, most innovative leaders know this and work around it by testing ideas before judging them and letting the results guide their thinking.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Under New Management. When and why did you decide to write it?

Burkus: During the writing for my last book, I started noticing that “creative” companies had policies that were just a little bit quirky and different compared to business as usual. I couldn’t stop noticing these different policies…from unlimited vacation to ditching performance appraisals. But I also saw them through the lens of organizational psychology…and the research and theories about human behavior that these policies were actually more aligned with than the typical management practices.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Burkus: I was not expecting to become an advocate for salary transparency. I started writing the book thinking that salaries were private information and that, whatever the benefits of transparency, keeping it private was worth it. It turns out it’s the other way around. Privacy comes at a high cost, and transparency has many benefits. From increasing morale and collaboration to decreasing the gender wage gap. Transparency makes a lot of sense and it’s a trend I hope will continue.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Burkus: Well, I didn’t originally plan to write a chapter about open office floor plans, but my editor convinced me to take a look at it. When I did, I found that we’ve been moving toward more and more open offices under the assumption that it’s good for collaboration and creativity. And that may be true, but the real reason for the trend is just how much money is saved by cramming more people into less total square footage. There is research supporting the creativity claims, but there is also research showing open offices increase stress levels, decrease productivity, and even increase the number of sick days employees take. The costs just aren’t worth the benefits.

Morris: For many years, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) was among the most influential business thinkers of his time. Why?

Burkus: Taylor innovated the factory. He studied the production process, analyzed it, refined it, and built a management structure around the one best way to manufacture that product. His methods revolutionized industry and brought a huge surge of growth to many sectors.

Morris: When and why did “Taylorism” lose its appeal?

Burkus: I’m not sure it did…at least not as much as it should have. In many ways, we dragged Taylorism with us from the factory to the office and never questioned whether or not it was the right approach. But it didn’t get the same result…it’s not getting the same result. And so we need to find a new way to innovate the modern factory…the office.

Morris: All organizations and individuals have at least some “room for improvement.” When allocating resources (especially attention, time, and energy), how best to determine priorities? That is, on what to focus?

Burkus: I think the low hanging fruit are those things that restrict employee engagement or productivity. So many of the new practices in Under New Management actually stem from leaders eliminating policies rather than adding them. Take unlimited vacation at Netflix, for example. CEO Reed Hastings got a complaint from an employee that essentially asked “you trust us enough not to track when we’re working, so why don’t you trust us enough when it comes to days not worked.”

Hastings had no response but saw that his employees were being negatively affected. So they scrapped the policy and that sent a strong reassurance of his trust to all employees.

Morris: What are the unique challenges for those leading such initiatives?

Burkus: As I talked about earlier with the mousetrap myth, humans are really bad at judging new ideas. We prefer the status quo, even when we know the status quo isn’t optimal. The biggest challenge for leading these initiatives is convincing people to make that change. To deal with this, it’s best to start small. Don’t make a bunch of changes or even one big change, but plot a course to move people through over time. And keep experimenting and refining that course as you learn lessons from your journey.

Morris: These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these?

First, Sabbaticals (Pages 9-10 and 162-175

Burkus: Not only do sabbaticals provide a chance for employees to rest, refresh, and learn new skills, but they can also be beneficial for stress testing our succession planning. When a manager takes a sabbatical, we can try a new person in the role and see how it goes…and make a note of developmental opportunities before they become permanently promoted.

Morris: Limiting email (13-25)

Burkus: Email is a great tool because it is cheap and asynchronous…but as a result we send it often and we send it at all hours of the days. That’s why in order to free employees to do deep work undistracted and to let them enjoy their off hours, many companies have set limits on when emails can be sent…or banned internal email entirely.

Morris: Employees first, customers second (26-43)

Burkus: Employee satisfaction isn’t a cause; it’s an effect. The cause is putting employees first, raising their satisfaction, and trusting that they will in turn put customers first.

Morris: Pay to Quit program (67-68)

Burkus: Offering a “quitting” bonus works in two ways. First, it makes it easier for someone who is having doubts about the job or the company to self-select out easily. Second, and perhaps even better, it gives employees a chance to evaluate the company and, when not taken, engage even stronger with it.

Morris: Noncompete clauses/agreements (86-101)

Burkus: As my friend and brilliant legal scholar Orly Lobel says, “talent wants to be free.” Noncompete clauses restrict the freedom of talented individuals….so they’re more likely to avoid those companies or work less hard for them if they do join.

Morris: Performance appraisals (102-116)

Burkus: The goal of performance appraisals is really just that: feedback that improves performance. But that feedback doesn’t happen often enough, and the formality of performance appraisals means honest conversations are being replaced by negotiation over the right “label” to use in evaluation.

Morris: Hiring as a team (117-1341)

Burkus: The people working with new hires should be the ones deciding who gets hired.

Morris: Organizational charts/hierarchy (132-147)

Burkus: The best teams might be more temporary than a traditional organizational chart can keep up with. So many companies are rewriting the reporting relationships around current projects and not legacy job titles.

Morris: Companies without managers (176-191)

Burkus: Management as a function is useful and vital, but many companies are finding they can disperse the jobs managers do to various members of the team and function better, reacting to market changes faster, without a dense management structure.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Under New Management, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Burkus: The biggest lesson is the throughline throughout the book: “Great leaders don’t innovate the product, they innovate the factory.” It was true even before Fredrick Taylor and it will still be true for the leaders who are willing to experiment and reinvent how they do business to provide resources and autonomy for their people and get the best out of them.

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David cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website.

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