Under New Management: A book review by Bob Morris

Under New ManagementUnder New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual
David Burkus
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (March 2016)

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their jobs done.” Peter Drucker

When concluding his previous book, The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas, David Burkus discusses the Mousetrap Myth, suggesting that it “is perhaps the most stifling to innovation because it doesn’t concern generating ideas. Rather, it affects how ideas are implemented. It’s not enough for an organization to have creative people; it has to develop a culture that doesn’t reject great ideas…Leaders need to get better at counteracting their own bias and recognizing innovations sooner. We don’t just need more great ideas; we need to spread the great ideas we already have.”

The process of doing that throughout an enterprise must therefore be at least as innovative as the process by which great ideas are produced. He also discusses ten other myths, each of which is also a formidable barriers to creative thinking. Burkus has an insatiable curiosity that drives his rigorous examination of all manner of organizations whose leaders have become hostage to what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Myths such as the eleven Burkus discusses in the earlier book help to explain the “business as usual” mindset that resents — and resists — whatever it perceives to be a threat to there status quo. More often than not, those who defend the status quo played a significant role in upending the status quo that preceded it.

It would be desirable but not necessary to read The Myths of Creativity before reading Under New Management. In my opinion, they are destined to become business book “classics.” I highly recommend both.

In his Introduction to the latter, Burkus explains that “the purpose of this book is to challenge you and your company to ask whether the time has come for you to reexamine some of the most fundamental concepts in management today. Remember, the business of business is all about change and keeping up with the latest trends. Here’s your chance to see for yourself what kinds of management changes you should be considering.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Burkus’ coverage:

o Sabbaticals (Pages 9-10 and 162-175)
o Limiting email (13-25)
o Employees first, customers second (26-43)
o Vacation policies (44-57)
o Pay to Quit program (67-68)
o Salary transparency (71-85)
o Dane Atkinson (71-72 and 74-76)
o Salary transparency at SumAll (74-76)
o Noncompete clauses/agreements (86-101)
o Performance appraisals (102-116)
o Hiring as a team (117-1341)
o Eden McCallum (132-136 and 139-140)
o Organizational charts/hierarchy (132-147)
o David Kelley (145-146)
o Open vs. closed offices (148-160)
o TEDGlobal conference (162-163 and 174-175)
o Companies without managers (176-191)

Burkus offers several dozen recommendations as to how organizations can overcome the aforementioned “ideology of comfort and tyranny of custom.” Here are four:

o Put Customers Second: “To better serve their customers, some corporate leaders have found that they must put their customers’ needs second and their employees’ needs first. They have basically inverted the hierarchy and aligned their companies with a well-researched model of customer satisfaction that comes through company happiness.”

o Ditch Performance Appraisals: “Performance appraisals have long been assumed to be vitally important to a manager’s job. But many companies have found that rigid performance management structures actually prevent people from improving their performance, so smart leaders have begun eliminating these structures in favor of newer measures [e.g. frequent feedback] that actually enhance performance.”

o Take Sabbaticals: “Despite the temptation to be ‘always on,’ the best leaders give themselves and their employees a good long break once in a while — a sabbatical. These leaders have found that the best way to stay productive all of the time is too spend a good portion of the time being deliberately unproductive.”

o Celebrate Departures: “As individual job tenure in companies becomes shorter, leaders say a good-bye to even their best people more frequently. How they do this — whether they celebrate or shun the departed — affects not just those leaving but those who stay, as well as the performance of both the old and the new firms.”

I am grateful to Burkus for providing an abundance of information, insights, and counsel about organizational transformation and, especially, for introducing me and his other readers to two companies of which I (at least) knew nothing about previously: Sum All in the United States and Eden McCallum in the United Kingdom. The lessons to be learned from them will be of substantial value to leaders in almost any other organization, whatever its size and nature may be.

David Burkus realizes that the new methods he recommends for consideration may seem counterintuitive — “but they shouldn’t. Instead these methods should be seen as what they are — honest attempts to build a better engine. They might not work, or might not work as well, insider every organization. But their success in their own companies should be seen as validation for leaders everywhere to start experimenting with their company. Their efforts may not work perfectly, but the old methods didn’t work so perfectly [or, more to the point, may not work as well now as they once did]. If they can get efficiency, or engagement, up just a few percent wage points, then it’s clearly worthwhile to continue to experiment.”

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