Management Isn't Rocket Science

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar October 24, 2018

Some thought leaders in business see management as some kind of rocket science—and speak about it in obscure jargon (a.k.a. bullshitbingo). Rocket science it is not. Indeed the opposite is true, and a sample of observations from what happens in practice is sufficient to make this point.

For example, let’s take the use of one of Albert Einstein’s most popular quotes. Countless writers claim that he once said: “Problems can’t be solved with the same level of consciousness that created them in the first place.”

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This particular quote (for which there is no official source), is often misused in relation to organization change, by managers and gurus alike. It comes across like: “The level of consciousness of an organization cannot exceed the level of consciousness of its leaders", or as:“An organization cannot evolve beyond its leadership’s stage of development.”

Such claims are a shame. They not only demotivate front-line employees who wish to introduce change, they are based on false generalizations. To illustrate these generalizations are nonsense, we offer examples from practice that show the exact opposite. Here we go…

Some thought leaders in business see management as some kind of rocket science—and speak about it in obscure jargon (a.k.a. bullshitbingo). Rocket science it is not. Indeed the opposite is true.
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1. Bottom-up revolution - Bol.com

Bolshop

The first is from Dutch e-commerce company bol.com—a popular online shop in the Netherlands and Belgium. It’s also where a true revolution is taking place—a revolution of engagement, motivation and success.

Since its founding in 1999, bol.com has operated with a flat structure and high autonomy. With expansion, it became increasingly difficult to maintain this structure.

However, the high levels of autonomy made it hard for top-down change programs to succeed, creating the freedom necessary for bottom-up revolution. For example, one employee, Harm Jans, took matters into his own hands. He decided, without the support of leaders, to experiment with ways of working in his team of 40 in logistics.

They developed their own approach, and called it Spark. During the experiment, the team felt engagement and productivity rise. They knew they were on the right track. With some quick wins, and in an effort to inspire others to join the movement for better work, Harm and colleagues took every chance they could to tell the story of their new way of working.

The result? Other teams got excited about this bottom-up revolution. Now, months later, the majority of the company is working with Spark. More importantly, the leadership is convinced Spark is the way forward!

This simple case study shows that you don’t have to be the CEO to have a significant impact on the way an entire organization works. It might not be easy, but bol.com shows what can be achieved without the upfront consent of the leadership team!

2. Removal of a CEO - Handelsbanken

Handelsbanken 1

The second example comes from the Swedish bank, Handelsbanken. They are renowned as a decentralized organization. Local branches enjoy high levels of autonomy, and are expected to make business decisions. Simply, they are seen to be closest to the customer—and best equipped to make good decisions.

However, in 2016, the bank’s decentralized approach was threatened by the appointment of new CEO, Frank Vang-Jensen. He decided to close ~60 local branches. This was seen as threatening to the bank’s unique, decentralized model.

Just 18 months later, Vang-Jensen was removed from his position. Insiders highlighted his failure to listen to front-line employees and to support the bank’s decentralized approach.

Both these simple stories show that the stage of development of an organization can be way ahead of the development of its leaders: and, at Handelsbanken, so much ahead that the organization forced the leader to get lost.

Falsifiability

Scientists have a name for this kind of false claim. They call it falsifiability. A statement or claim is falsifiable if it can be proven so by observation.

For example, the claim that “All swans are white.” is falsifiable—as was shown in the sighting (by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh) of black swans in the Swan River in Australia.

Management Isn't Rocket Science
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The same can be applied to the false claim that “The level of consciousness of an organization cannot exceed the level of consciousness of its leaders.”

Our two examples show this! So, from now on please forget about this kind of nonsense claim…

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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