Monday, July 16, 2020

A nation of fast food, with leaders to match

One of the less-noticed problems with today’s cult of speed is that it promotes superficial thinking and mental laziness.

If you feel you have no time available, the temptation to cut mental corners and jump to some well-known, supposedly tested solution can be overwhelming; even if you feel, deep down, that it’s not really the right solution to your problem. There’s no time allowed for anything else. But cheap, superficial thinking is like cheap, shoddy manufacture: it won’t stand up long to the normal wear and tear of life.
I’ve often written about Hamburger Management because the comparison with fast food is so close. People in a constant rush delight in fast food because it’s . . . well, fast. You can make your choice, get your order, and gulp it down in a few minutes. It’s easy, convenient, and—above all—quick. Fast food is also designed to deliver a swift burst of flavor, via high sodium, high sugar, and high fat. We all know it isn’t healthy, but, hell, it’s quick, cheap, takes no real thought to order, and it tastes kinda good at the time.

Hamburger management is exactly like that. It uses whatever approach is quickest, cheapest, takes least thought, and delivers an immediate burst of feel-good results. And, just as a diet of fast food takes time to produce obesity, diabetes, and a myriad other ills, the probelms only show up later.

The more organizations put pressure on managers to handle impossible workloads and provide instant, infallible answers, the more they force them into macho, quick-fix styles of operation. Speed becomes almost the only criterion for choosing how to manage. Leaders become obsessed with pre-packaged answers, with following “industry best practice,” with copying the latest fashion trend in business. All because they can no longer allow themselves the patience, the time, or the energy, to think for themselves. In time, they forget how to do. Many even teach those following them that independent thinking is an impractical idea.

“Management by in-flight magazine"

Many organizations run on what many have termed “management by in-flight magazine." That’s making choices based on the kind of 300-word lists of “The 10 all-time best management/marketing/leadership/business tips” you find in in-flight magazines. Why pick on those publications? Because many of these managers are almost constantly in transit and being on a plane provides one of the few times they ever have free for reading.

When you’re drowning in data and wordy, jargon-laden reports, brief tips are like a life-belt. They’re easy to grasp, quickly absorbed, and simple to digest. For the Hamburger Manager, anything that can’t be taken in and applied within a few minutes at most is dismissed as “impractical.”

There goes just about all theory, all discussion, all exploration, and all careful consideration: dismissed as “impractical” on no better basis than that he or she hasn’t the time to read it, let alone think about it. No wonder we live in times when superficial articles written by journalists (also on crippling deadlines), and simplistic books by self-appointed gurus, have far greater impact than careful works of scholarly analysis and critical appreciation.

Slow down . . . for your mind’s sake too

Slowing down isn’t only good for your physical health. It’s vital for your mental abilities and intellectual development too. The world cannot be expressed only in neat, 10-item lists and questions with multiple-choice answers, however convenient and time-saving that might be. It isn’t possible to swallow true understanding in bite-sized, batter-coated nuggets. Seeing the right way to proceed takes time and effort. If you aren’t willing, or able, to make that effort, you shouldn’t be in a leadership position.

To be successful in the long-term, you must think for yourself. You must be able to distinguish between superficially attractive, jargon-laden platitudes and genuine insights. You must be able to ignore snake-oil sellers in favor of genuine thinkers, even if the mental food those thinkers offer takes a great deal of careful chewing.

Investors quickly learn that if something appears too good to be true, that’s what it is. Sadly, many managers have still to learn this simple fact. Instead, rushed, harried, and confused, they rely on mass-produced cliches and patented nostrums to solve their problems. They’ve become physically hyper-active and mental coach potatoes at the same time. And at a time when organizations in developing countries are catching up fast, the organizations that promote such managerial styles in cause of quick profits are risking their futures to innovations discovered elsewhere.

The empire of Rome collapsed when the Romans relied on paying outsiders to do their fighting for them. I wonder what will happen if today’s major corporations go on relying on superficiality, while paying consultants (who aren’t much better) to do their thinking for them?

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Tuesday, June 26, 2020

The 7 worst habits of Hamburger Management

  1. Always taking the easy way out. Lots of people want simple answers to all of life’s problems, but Hamburger Management makes this into an art form. Because they’re always in a mad rush, rarely bothering to “waste” time in thinking or reflecting, these macho managers depend on a few simple and conventional ways for doing everything. They don’t want to hear about problems; all they want are quick and easy solutions, preferably ones that won’t increase costs or take any real effort to implement. Instead of using information to help them explore and understand, they pick on one or two “key ratios” and use them as mechanical ways to tell them what to do.

    Running things in this way produces rigid, simplistic styles of management. The focus on simple outcomes, like quarterly profits, obscures the reality that events don’t fit into neat categories in that way. Short-term, quick “wins” easily turn into longer-term slow losses. The constant haste and pressure to deliver on rigid goals makes it impossible to stand back and see how superficial and limited this approach soon becomes.

  2. Acting first and thinking afterwards. I’m tempted to say never thinking, but that is probably too harsh. The cult of “getting things done” and “delivering results” has been twisted into an obsession with instant action and constant busyness, regardless of whether or not such action has a sound sense of direction. Anyone can run around being busy all the time. That doesn’t make you effective, it just makes you tired and stressed.

    Sitting and thinking is not doing nothing; it’s one of the most important activities of management: working out what to do next for the best results. Just because you cannot see mental activity doesn’t meant that it isn’t there. Some prior thought can help you avoid problems, save time and cost, and retain flexibility. Jumping into ill-considered action, just to show how busy you are, makes no sense at all.

  3. Always being right. Hamburger Management is based on a combative, militaristic picture of the organization: business as warfare against competitive forces and a wide range of “enemies” from environmentalists and unions to tax authorities. This produces a macho image of the leader, free from weakness of purpose or too many scruples about how to achieve it.

    If being wrong is seen as a weakness, there’s no space for humility. Nor is it possible to acknowledge mistakes or change course. All that is left is to show boundless determination to push ahead on the original track, regardless of problems or evidence that it isn’t gong to work. There’s a long history of organizations and executives persisting with projects long after everyone else could see that success was hopeless. Nobody is always right. In reality, some of the weakest people are the most stubborn, since their fragile self-esteem cannot cope with admitting that they have made mistakes.

  4. Talking when they should be listening. This is another aspect of the macho style: a command-and-control approach that is big on issuing orders and shouting down the doubters. Many macho managers have inflated egos. They focus so much on their personal agendas that they have no time or attention for anything else. They confuse being domineering and autocratic with being decisive.

    When you don’t listen, you deprive yourself of the life-blood of effective leadership: good, up-to-date information about what is going on, so that you can respond accordingly. You also stifle creativity and suppress problems until they become crises. One of the main reasons why macho managers are always up to their butts in crocodiles is that they never get any information about what’s going on in the swamp. Their mouths are wide open and their ears are tight shut. Spending more time listening would help them head off more problems, instead of having to deal with them after they’ve grown to a dangerous size.

  5. Not knowing when to give up and do something else. Hamburger Management has created a cult of dogged determination. The macho manager’s self-image is something like John Wayne, pistol in hand, facing down overwhelming odds. There’s nothing wrong with being determined—it can be essential to achieve results—but when it is taken to excess it becomes pig-headedness.

    There’s an old saying that, if the only tool that you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If all you have to offer is being a tough guy, every goal will demand grim determination; every plan will call for overcoming problems by sheer force. You’ll distrust cleverness, since that threatens to make your bull-headed style look useless.

  6. Believing that might makes right. Tough guys value being tough. Those who believe that their success depends on hard fighting to overcome the other guy value fighting ability. Domineering people value being number one. Management gun slingers value being quick on the draw. None of them can admit to any doubt about the excellence of their chosen approach.

    The court cases of recent years involving top executives have shown the prevalence of the belief that might makes right: that winning is everything, pretty much regardless of how you do it. The history of civilization is the story of people doing away with the automatic assumption that the biggest bully should rule over everyone else. Sadly, that idea is alive and well in organizations afflicted with Hamburger Management. Whether it’s beating competitors with various dirty tricks, crushing internal dissent, or using shameless lobbying to prevent lawmakers from curbing your activities, might is the answer to every issue.

  7. Focusing on the negative. Hamburger managers are constantly stressed. Partly as the natural result of all the haste, harassment, and obsessive activity they load into their lives; partly due to their constant focus on the negative. Whatever results they achieve, they are never enough. There’s always a gap between what has been gained and what can still be imagined. The performance of subordinates is never good enough. They can always find “gaps” between performance and some theoretical ideal. The continual emphasis on “more, more, more” makes everything done so far appear inadequate.

    It’s one thing to have strong aspirations; quite another to be obsessed with the gaps between what you can imagine and what can be achieved in this imperfect universe. It’s said that the optimist sees the glass as half full, the pessimist as half empty, and the realist points out that the glass is twice the size it ought to be. The macho manager imagines an even bigger glass, dreams of the glory he or she would reap if it was filled, and announces that they will make sure it is done by the end of the next quarter. With no real idea how to make this happen, he or she hands this crazy goal to the team, who are told to do it—or else. If results fall short, they are the ones to blame. Never mind that the goal was ill thought out and quixotic, designed purely to glorify the manager. Do this a few times and everyone will become thoroughly demoralized.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2020

Why slowing down is the best way to get there faster

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it works just about every time.

Going too fast denies you the opportunity to exercise life’s choices in a deliberate and conscious way. The result is a series of decisions made mostly by a mixture of short-cuts, snap choices, and rules of thumb. Bad decisions too, since there was no time to consider alternatives or delve into the detail. Like someone driving down an unfamiliar road, in the dark, and the rain, and without lights, the result is pretty predictable. Take your foot off the gas and try slowing down enough to think about where you’re going and what might lie ahead. You’ll likely get there faster . . . and in one piece too.
Rushing denies you the power of choice. When you’re going as fast as you can, there’s no time to think about options or consider alternatives. You have to make all decisions at high speed and that means relying on what you already know or what has worked in the past. It means using rules of thumb and quick-fixes. It means ignoring the subtleties and complexities of a situation, because you simply don’t have the time to take them into account.

Rushing also simplifies—but not in a positive way. It simplifies the way that looking at something as you drive past at 70 miles an hour simplifies it. You see that it’s a person, or an animal, or a vehicle, but there isn’t time for your mind to register any of the details. All you get is a quick impression. So that’s all you can work with.

For example, say that you want to improve customer relations. If you’re in a rush, there won’t be time to check through any of the data available in any depth. The best you’ll be able to do is to grab the headlines and work with those, likely missing some of what really matters. You make a snap choice and set off in broadly the right direction, but without sifting through the options for the best path to take. As a result, you run into problems—then assume you are headed in the wrong direction. So now you go off some other way and throw yourself totally off track.

One of the worst aspects of today’s macho management is that it encourages decision makers to operate with a minimum of input. Haste forces them to work with summaries and headlines prepared by others. They rarely have the chance to explore the options for themselves. Even choices that might involve massive costs and huge potential profits or losses are taken on the basis of headline figures summarized on a single sheet of paper or a few PowerPoint slides.

Why should this matter?

It matters because the power of choice is immensely powerful. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful tools that we have for changing ourselves and our world in positive (or negative) ways.

Every time you make a choice—even a simple one—you alter direction and put yourself on a new path towards encountering something you would not have met had your choice gone the other way.

Imagine trying to find your way to a set point in an unfamiliar city. Each choice—left turn, right turn, go straight ahead—sends you on a slightly different track. It might be the right one, or the wrong one, or one in between: neither right nor wrong in itself, but sending you towards your destination more or less directly. Every single choice has an effect. Individually, none is probably irreversible or bound to stop you from reaching where you want to go. But cumulatively, a series even of marginally poor choices will send you miles off course, while a series of sound choices will get you to your destination quickly and without stress.

That’s what I mean when I say that slowing down is the best way to go faster. By slowing down enough to make every choice a conscious and careful one, you avoid snap decisions that might take you miles out of your way.

The cost of speed

Our modern obsession with speed not only robs us of our choices. In many cases, we’re going so fast that we don’t even notice that they were choices to make until it’s too late. The choices were there though—and they were made, perhaps by default or even unconsciously. All because you failed to slow down enough to notice all those forks in the road and concealed turnings.

That’s what Hamburger Management does to you. It substitutes speed and thoughtlessness for choice. It bases decisions on slogans (Quicker! Cheaper! More! More!) instead of careful, rational analysis. Everything is short-term because, at that speed, trying to look ahead to the longer-term means you have to take your eyes of the road immediately ahead for a moment . . . so you smash into the car right in front of you.

Why are so many people so stressed? Because they’re being forced to go along at a pace that makes them feel permanently out of control. Just a little faster and they’ll be certain to crash. It’s enough to make anyone feel tense and afraid.

Don’t join in the mad rush to do everything faster and faster. That crowd’s composed mostly of lemmings—and we all know where they end up. By slowing down, you’ll be safer, waste less time on wrong turnings and the subsequent corrections, and lower your stress levels into the bargain.

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Monday, June 04, 2020

In the dark? Here’s how to get better information

The basic laws of office communication

What’s most often blamed for organizational problems? You guessed. It’s poor communication. And what probably claims most attention from consultants, writers, gurus and trainers? Same answer. Yet it never appears to improve significantly. Since modern organizations began to emerge, people have been complaining about communication problems. All the training and consulting should have solved the problem long ago, but they haven’t. Why should that be?

The answer lies in human nature: that endless source of difficulties for anyone wanting to make life tidy and predictable. Information in organizations flows upwards, downwards, and sideways according to four natural laws that are caused by some very human responses to the requirement to pass information along. Knowing these laws is essential if you want to save yourself endless trouble and frustration. Using them wisely will make you seem to be a born communicator. It’s the combination of the three laws that decides how much information each person will get and how heavily filtered it will be.

First Law: Upward flows will contain only good news

Bad news doesn’t move upwards in organizations easily. Typically, it doesn’t flow upwards at all. People’s immediate response to bad news is to bury it and hope it’s never found. Bosses encourage this by their tendency to kill the messenger. Being the bearer of bad news to those above you in the hierarchy isn’t good for your career or your job security.

In contrast, good news not only moves upwards easily, it’s often enriched and added to along the way. If there isn’t enough, more can be invented. Telling the boss what he or she wants to hear is commonplace, as is exaggerating every small success and forgetting all failures.

Second Law: Downward flows will be limited unless they are negative

In most organizations, information is only passed down the hierarchy on a “need to know” basis. Since bosses, especially those with large egos (that is most of them—and all Hamburger Managers) and a love of power (ditto), assume their subordinates need to know little, the downward flow of information is niggardly at best. Being “in the know” makes people feel important, so those who get information rarely feel much urge to pass it on.

“Need to know” may be important in communities of spies, but it’s hard to see why it applies so widely in other organizations, apart from the reasons given above. There are likely to be few topics where secrecy is genuinely needed, and a great many where it harms progress. But humans are human and most of them love a good secret.

The exception to the limit on information flowing downwards is blame. Blame flows downwards at great speed, since those above want to make sure none of it stays with them. Indeed, it keeps flowing downward until it reaches those who can’t manage to pass it on fast enough, or have no one to pass it to. There it sticks, even if they had nothing whatever to do with the original issue.

Third Law: Sideways flows will depend on trust and liking

Do people share information with their peers? Only if they like them. That means those closest together, physically and emotionally, share information most readily, but those further away on either count are left out. Where information has to cross departmental boundaries, it rarely makes it. Other departments are demonized, so based on being disliked and distrusted, they get next to nothing. Indeed, there’s often a tacit agreement to block information to them, or even falsify it.

This law works in combination with the other two like this:
  • Bosses who are well-liked get more and better information from their subordinates. It’s less heavily filtered and may even contain some of the bad news.
  • Disliked bosses get only unalloyed good news, much of it fabricated. All negative data is suppressed.
  • Trusted subordinates are told most of what they need to know, and are usually told rather more as well—including what the boss is still thinking about.
  • Disliked and distrusted subordinates are told as little as possible, even if they really need to know. The only exception is anything negative about them, which is relayed promptly and in great detail.

Fourth Law: Bad news travels farther and faster than good

It’s human nature to pass on bad news quickly. You only have to watch the professional news media to realize that. Good news has to be very good to make the headlines. Bad news only has to be intriguing, odd-ball, or sexy.

The effect of this is a continual skewing of data towards the negative, especially over the short term. If a new initiative is launched, the quickest feedback will be the most extreme, whether positive or (especially) negative. That sometimes leads to organizations and people making bad judgments. Ideas are dropped on the basis of quick feedback that suggests problems. The good news takes its time to filter through and by then it’s too late.

If you want to get good information, make yourself liked and trusted, whether you’re in a boss or a subordinate relationship with the person who has the data. That’s why organizations that foster distrust through macho, Hamburger Management, constant cost-cutting, and treating staff like expendable widgets quickly get what they deserve: a virtual information blackout.

If you want the complete and accurate picture, give it time. Don’t get too despondent if the first news looks bleak. Don’t get too excited if the next wave of reports filtering up the hierarchy sound extremely rosy. All news is filtered somehow. Sometimes the only way to get anything like the truth is to go and see for yourself.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2020

The plain truth on the multitasking myth

Isn’t it time everyone dropped the multi-tasking idea for good?

Whatever amazing multi-tasking powers you believe you have, the facts are plain and irrefutable. Your brain isn’t able to switch back and forth between even moderately complex or demanding tasks without a major loss in speed, accuracy, and quality of processing. You may think otherwise, but it’s a myth. With complicated tasks, no one is able to overcome the inherent limitations of the human brain for processing large amounts of information simultaneously—i.e. multitasking. It just can’t be done, any more than a human being is ever going to be able to fly by flapping his or her arms. We aren’t built that way.
There’s abundant hard evidence that multitasking is a poor strategy. Dan Bobinski, writing a while ago in Management Issues, quoted Robert Croker, Ed.D., chair of the Human Resource Training and Development Department at Idaho State University, in support of the view that the human brain simply isn’t designed for multi-tasking.
It’s a common misconception is that a brain is like a computer. A computer is designed to multi-task. A human brain is not designed to function optimally in a multi-task environment.
Researchers Joshua Rubinstein, Ph.D., of the Federal Aviation Administration, and David Meyer, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, proved the simple process of switching focus from one task to another ties up a considerable amount of mental processing power. Pointing to the “executive control” processes the brain uses to establish priorities among tasks and allocate the mind’s resources to them, the researchers found:
. . . executive control involves two distinct, complementary stages: goal shifting (“I want to do this now instead of that“) and rule activation (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this“). Both stages help people unconsciously switch between tasks.
When a person continually switches between tasks, the brain wastes a great deal of time and energy clearing out the processing rules for the previous task and orienting itself to the new one—only to go through the whole cycle again when the first task is back in focus. Activating and completing these procedures wastes copious amounts of time. The research indicates continually switching between tasks can make completion take four times longer, due to the time needed to keep switching mental gears.

David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, says:
The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large—amazingly so.
The quality of your work is severely diminished when trying to do even two tasks simultaneously. The more the tasks differ from one another in complexity and familiarity, the greater the effect on time and quality. According to Time Magazine, quoting Hal Pashler, psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, automatic actions, or what the researchers call “highly practiced skills” like walking or chopping an onion, can be done while thinking about other things. But any kind of action planning or decision making requires full attention.

So if you’re sitting at your desk doing nothing more demanding than moving papers from one pile to another, your brain is free to think about most anything else. But if the boss calls and asks you what you plan to do about the mess you made of last month’s sales return, you’d better give that your full attention. That’s what catches out the moronic people who drive while yakking on their cellphones. On a straight piece of road with few other vehicles, it seems easy. But let something unexpected arise that requires a choice of actions and they can’t drag their minds back to the job in hand fast enough to avoid an accident.

Multi-tasking makes you less productive, wastes your time, and lowers the quality of what you do. It increases your likelihood of mistakes, physical or verbal. Used habitually, it gradually prevents you from concentrating effectively even if you want to. It’s a very poor strategy for anyone trying to cope with demanding work.

So why do organizations encourage it? Or even tolerate it?

Multi-tasking makes you less productive, wastes your time, and lowers the quality of what you do.

Organizations believe that multi-tasking benefits them due to the conventional view that the way to a successful business is primarily based on cutting costs—especially the costs of employing people. To reduce head count, without reducing the amount of work done, demands that all those left work harder and cover more tasks. Multi-tasking looks like the answer. Halve the workforce and make everyone do two jobs at the same time. Simple!

Hence the emphasis on multi-tasking. In the short-term, the organization appears to benefit by a cost reduction (caused by employing fewer people for the same amount of work). In the longer term, reduced productivity and enhanced stress negate that benefit and impose a penalty instead. In fact, continual cost-cutting produces only a short-term benefit, often at the expense of longer-term results. But, since the typical executive rarely considers the longer-term (many don’t last that long in their jobs), they see the short-term gain and miss (or ignore) the long-term loss.

When mistakes multiply, as they will, and quality falls, the link between multi-tasking and an increase in errors is ignored. It has to be, since to do otherwise is to admit that the cost-cutting was an error. That’s quite out of the question, especially since it would invalidate “accepted wisdom” on the necessity of continually cutting costs. It’s usually easier—and far more common—to blame the individual for any mistakes, even if the organization is the real culprit.

Multi-tasking is a failed attempt by people to display super-human powers. Even wearing your underwear on the outside and a tunic with a large S on it won’t change that.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2020

Should business priorities dictate so much else?

Pressure from the “money men” is often blamed for increasing stress on managers and, through them, on the organization as a whole. Why should this be?
Wall Street, like all stock markets, began as a way to raise money from people who wanted to take a share in the profits of the businesses that they invested in. Now it seems to drive everything else. At least when sharing in the profits is your goal, your interest is in a steady flow of good dividends. That’s a medium-term objective—maybe sometimes a long-term one too. So how did the modern craze for instant gratification arise?

Nowadays, most of the people on Wall Street are traders. They make their money by buying and selling shares, or gambling on share movements via so-called “financial derivatives.” Dividends are of little interest. Many businesses no longer pay any. Long-term success is also a minor concern, since few traders hold shares for the longer term. They want profits, and they want them now, so they can use them to trade some more.

The result is rampant short-termism. Buying and selling (trading) is essentially a short-term business. Besides, the traders have little or no interest in what they are trading, just as long as they can sell for more than they paid—hopefully in the shortest possible time—and move on. Hence the emphasis on quarterly figures as almost the sole criterion of success.

We also live in a time when it has become fashionable to believe that the ideas and practices of capitalist business apply to many other walks of life. Government departments, health care facilities, charitable organizations, even the arts all try to organize themselves based on the business world.

Capitalism may well be the best way that people have yet found for dealing with business and creating wealth, but it’s arguable whether its priorities should be the ones that determine so much of our lives. As a purely financial outlook, it has difficulty in dealing with “soft” human issues like compassion, altruism, and care. It cannot easily recognize value that can’t be counted or measured.

It would make more sense for us to accept that capitalism is the best we’ve done so far in one aspect of life, but keep it in its place. For the rest of our choices, other approaches need to be found. And even in the business world, I can see no reason why modern capitalist consumerism should be taken to be the last word. It may be as good as it gets at present, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be using our creativity and brainpower to find even better, more civilized, ways of organizing wealth creation in the future.

What do you think?

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Friday, May 04, 2020

Management Cheapskates

What other profession praises those who skimp on resources, compromise quality, and show disrespect for others?

What happens when you try to manage people "on the cheap?" You get shoddy goods, poor customer service, a frustrated workforce, and a recipe for decline and failure. So why is Hamburger Management—the epitome of management on the cheap—so prevalent? Because the culprits are rarely around when the sh*t hits the fan.
Lisa Haneberg's article “Management on the Cheap“ caught my eye earlier in the week. She lists a series of ways in which managers short-change their staff and their consciences, including:
  • Claiming that you value relationships, and then leaving people are out of the decision-making process.

  • Saying you reward for excellence and then avoiding dealing with people who are not making the grade.

  • Telling your employees that ongoing development is important and then failing to ensure that you keep learning and developing.

  • Saying you value managers and then designing their jobs such that no one wants to do that work (or worse, takes the promotion and then checks his/her brain at the door).
I’d like to add some more examples of my own:
  • Hounding people to increase short-term profits by every means available—then paying them as little as possible for their work.

  • Talking about ethics and integrity—then expecting staff to cheat customers to make more money, and lie to cover up the organization’s mistakes.

  • Talking about building value—then expecting people to work far more than their set hours for no extra payment.

  • Demanding commitment and loyalty to the organization—then laying off people if you can find someone elsewhere willing to do the same work for less money.
We all know that doing anything on the cheap is only going to produce low-quality, shoddy work. How do Hamburger Managers get away with it?

The great advantage of being a high-flier is never having to say that you’re sorry.

Few of them expect to be in the same job when the problems that they have caused start to become apparent. The great advantage of being a high-flier is never having to say that you’re sorry. By the time it’s clear what lay behind your “success,” you’ve been promoted or moved on to bigger and better things. If anyone tries to pin the problems on you, you can simply say that your successor was the one who messed up.

In fact, your successor is almost certain to have changed everything anyway, in an attempt to stamp his or her mark on the new job. Nothing is more annoying to a newly-appointed manager than to see success attributed to the previous manager’s decisions. Nothing is more pleasant than to be able to point to that person’s errors and suggest you are exactly the right person to correct them.

By moving or promoting people every few years, organizations have institutionalized short-term thinking.

Why do you get cheapskates in management? Because that is the behavior that most organizations today reward. We’re told that the average tenure for a new CEO is less than two years. Don’t feel sorry for them. For many, that’s already too long. Their mistakes have already started to catch up with them. What they really wanted was to jump out with the golden parachute earlier, so they could keep the undeserved reputation of leadership genius as the basis for getting the next job. But then . . . even failed CEOs seem to find little difficulty in being hired again.

Managers don’t take the long view because they don’t need to. The short-term will see their time out in the job. By moving or promoting people every few years, organizations have institutionalized short-term thinking. By equating managerial performance with short-term results, they have solidified the link. In the end, organizations get what they reward. The people to feel sorry for are those who have to go on working in that kind of culture.

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Friday, April 06, 2020

Jam today . . . or caviar tomorrow?

Business leaders used to be compared to robber barons. Now some of them are more like greedy children or small-time gangsters.

Instant gratification is a hallmark of many of today’s organizations, headed by a slew of people following the shabby tenets of Hamburger Management. Sadly, there’s no sign that these organizations will grow out of their obsession; or that the financial institutions that fund them will encourage them to do so. This type of infantile behavior isn’t seen for what it is—a pathological prolonging of childish attitudes. In fact, people are encouraged to see it as perfectly normal. Why?
David Maister raises some interesting questions (“The Long Term”) about people’s inability to get past their urge towards instant gratification to do what is best for their own long-term interest. He writes:
In much of my recent thinking (and writing) I have observed that our biggest barrier, as individuals and as organizations, is the difficulty in doing what is in our long-term best interest, not just what provides immediate gratification . . . it is part of the human condition that we can know what to do, why we should do it, and even how to do things for which we fervently desire the benefits. None of that actually predicts that we actually are going to do what we absolutely know is good for us.
To say that this is equally, if not more, true of organizations is to state the obvious. The insane emphasis on quarterly earnings as almost the sole measure of business success is all about instant gratification. What may be in the longer-term interests of shareholders and the organization itself scarcely comes into the picture.

For organizations and individuals, it’s hard to resist the lure of “jam today” in favor of some future benefit that is, probably, far less certain. Taking the longer-term view used to be seen as a mark of maturity. Only children were expected to grab for immediate rewards. Adults saved money for the future, invested in pension plans, and considered short and long-term consequences before committing to some course of action.

What went wrong?

I suspect that much of today’s infantilism stems from a trend towards a consumer-based economy. Marketers and sales people don’t want customers to wait and think about their purchases. They don’t want them to set aside money in savings, when they could be spending it—right now—on buying products. From time to time, governments and financial gurus shake their heads over the problems caused by easy credit, but it’s really all their own doing. In the urge to sell more and more consumer products, credit is essential—and the easier the better. People quickly exhaust their current income (some still has to be spent on food and other necessities). Then they must either wait to save enough to make the next “big box” purchase, or borrow money to do so. Borrowing money not only makes the sale right away; it’s also a further opportunity to profit through the interest charged on the loan.

Somehow the consumer society manages to combine a puritanical obsession with working with a totally hedonistic devotion to getting whatever you want in as short a time as possible.

Yet capitalism itself is all about putting off gratification for the sake of greater long-term profit through investment. Instead of taking all their cash and having a truly memorable blow-out in some exotic location, entrepreneurs and capitalists are expected to invest their money and wait for bigger rewards some time in the future. Instant gratification is also the antithesis of America’s favorite attitude to life: the Puritan Work Ethic. If you truly accepted having it all and having it now as your goal, you would never go to work. Somehow the consumer society manages to combine a puritanical obsession with working with a totally hedonistic devotion to getting whatever you want in as short a time as possible.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of a consumer society, it was, of course, inevitable that the attitudes produced should spill over into the rest of life.

Management practices are not immune from this process. Training and developing staff can be a long-term business—far too long-term for your average Hamburger Manager, who demands that everyone should “hit the ground running” or suffer the consequences. Developing sensible organizational strategies takes much more time than putting up a Powerpoint presentation of slogans and platitudes—or, better still, copying what some other, supposedly successful, organization is doing. Imitation may or may not be the sincerest form of flattery, but it’s a hell of a lot quicker than crafting ideas that exactly fit the needs of your own organization. Raising short-term profits by cutting costs provides almost instant returns, even if the longer-term impact may be dire. Raising them by improving products, service, or competitiveness takes a whole lot more time and effort—never mind that it’s the only way to create a sustainable future.

Only those that set aside infantile ideas of instant gratification and short-termism will make it through to influence and shape the future.

Maybe what we are seeing is Darwinian evolution at work. The mass of short-term, grab-and-go organizations and managers won’t have the staying power to survive. Only those that set aside infantile ideas of instant gratification and short-termism will make it through to influence and shape the future. For the rest, extinction will come far sooner than they expect—and much, much sooner that they would wish.

Short-termism is an infectious disease that has been slowly choking the life and creativity out of our organizations. There's only one cure: to slow down, take a careful look at risks and rewards, and stop the slavish addiction to managing by numbers alone. Growing a business is like growing anything else. It takes time, and rushing it is more likely to produce a disaster than something that will go on growing. The attitudes of Hamburger Management have more in common with the methods of gangsters than entrepreneurs: get in quick, grab as much as you can, and get as far away as possible before trouble arrives. Is that what we want to see in boardrooms and executive suites?

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