Mobilizing the Minds of Research/Technology Managers

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Vol. 50, No. 6 November-December 2007 pp. 65-67.

You don’t need to be told that what you learned in a university about technology has long been out of date; you may not be aware that compared with even a generation ago, the logic of productivity and organizational effectiveness you were taught is just as outdated. And while you’ve probably noticed that the professionals you manage have different ideas about leadership, you’re not always sure how to handle them. After all, you got where you are because of your technical skill and can-do attitude. But now to succeed in today’s global market, you may need help in revising your thinking, especially about organization and leadership.

In their new book, Mobilizing Minds, Creating Wealth from Talent in the 21st Century Organization (McGraw-Hill), Lowell L. Bryan and Claudia I. Joyce of the McKinsey consultancy point to the considerable organizational inertia in large corporations. They write that organizational design and change are hard and time- consuming. It may run up against stubborn personalities and corporate politics. But in a business environment where talent, not capital, is the scarce resource, productivity and innovation call for remaking the corporation “to mobilize the mind power of the workforce and tap into its underutilized talents, knowledge, relationships and skills.”

Many companies are still organized according to 20th century industrial bureaucratic logic. This is a logic of mass production and standardization as contrasted to the logic of the knowledge-service workplace, which includes partnering and co-production, continual innovation and learning. Rather than defining quality purely in terms of meeting specs, the 21st century logic demands an offering that helps customers succeed according to their own definition of success. This implies an organization that can learn from customers, and that in turn requires empowered frontline employees rather than formatted roles; cross functional teams rather than stovepipes; networking and partnering rather than vertical command and control.

Clearly, the linear bureaucratic industrial logic is easier to apply than the complex holistic thinking of the knowledge-service workplace. It’s easier because it assumes a relatively stable market for standardized products and a workforce with uniform motivation, managed by rules and incentives. This contrasts to the knowledge-service market, which demands innovation and strategic learning, plus a workforce with diverse personalities, talents and values, and leaders who create collaboration by gaining commitment to a common purpose.

Leadership for Learning

How can research/technology managers with a 20th century outlook reprogram their organizational and leadership thinking? There are many courses and programs aimed at transforming 20th century bureaucracies into learning organizations, and I’d be surprised if most readers haven’t participated in one or more of them. I invite readers to send me descriptions of courses they’ve found useful, and I’ll summarize whatever I receive in future columns.

In this article, I’d like to describe is a 3 1/2 day course called ‘Leadership for Learning” that was devised by Richard Margolies, vice president of the Maccoby Group, for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Course material is based largely on my work, much of it first published in The Human Side Columns I’ve written over the years for Research Technology Management, and, quite naturally, I consider it a promising model!

The course was, designed in 2003 as the work of the Office of Force Transformation of the Defense Department was starting, and it supports the Army’s 2006 counter-insurgency doctrine which states:

“Learning organizations defeat insurgencies; bureaucratic hierarchies do not. Promoting learning is a key responsibility of commanders at all levels. The U.S. military has developed first class lessons-learned systems... But these systems only work when commanders promote their use and create a command climate that encourages bottom-up learning.”

The Corps has 36,000 members deployed in military and civilian missions (base construction, war theater engineering) and civilian missions (watersheds, rivers, harbors, as well as recreation, toxic remediation and environmental regulation). The Corps also runs six research labs. Its top leadership recognized that new thinking was needed to meet the challenges of disasters like Katrina, wars in Iraq and Afganistan, and the increased responsibilities of the Corps as a steward of the environment.

In the new context, the Corps has to learn to empower its technical staff to learn from experience and transform learning into continual performance improvement. To carry out its critical missions, the Corps has to transform the 20th century culture found in many large technical organizations, including an attitude of “we know best” and a bureaucracy of too many levels clogging the stovepipes.

Day 1

Here’s what happens in the course. The first day focuses on the logic of change—how political, economic and military challenges combined with new information and communication technology change the nature of work, causing the need for learning organizations. Along with these factors are changes in the family, new roles of women at work and the experiences of their children, raised in diverse family structures, resulting in a generation with different values and attitudes to work and authority than those people who grew up in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.

The new social character of technical professionals is naturally interactive rather than bureaucratic and not put off by the need for continual change. Motivated more by belief in the purpose and meaning of work than by traditional carrots and sticks, the interactive generation is turned off by autocratic and paternalistic bosses and responds positively only to collaborative leadership. When their talents are affirmed by leaders, the new social character contributes actively to an empowered learning organization.

Day 1 of the course includes exercises on the implications of these changes for the Corps and the work teams of the participants. They reflect on their leadership experiences and explore the meaning for the Corps of empowerment in a learning organization.

The course emphasizes that effective leaders of knowledge-based learning organizations understand themselves and the people they want to lead. To teach how to understand people, the course asks students to focus on four questions:

  • How are we like other people who’ve grown up in the same culture and class? Most of the older managers recognize themselves in the bureaucratic social character while the younger managers tend to be Interactives.

  • How are we like some others who share a motivational pattern? This points to different personality types which are ways of organizing our motivational systems, our inborn drives for security, relatedness, mastery, pleasure and self-esteem.

  • How do we want to define ourselves? This is our sense of identity, the meaning we give to ourselves in terms of family, country, profession, religion or race. Identity can be an especially powerful motivator if we only trust those who define themselves in the same way we do. This is what happens when, as in Iraq, civil society breaks down and people trust only those with the same religious or tribal identity.

  • How are we like no one else? This describes our unique mix of talents.

Day 2

The second day of the course looks at how participants are unique, their mix of talents and behavioral strengths, as indicated by a questionnaire given and interpreted by the Gallup organization. Participants reflect on how their talents connect to their work and discuss ways in which they might productively partner with colleagues who have complementary talents. For example, someone who is a stickler for accuracy might need to partner with someone who pushes projects to completion.

Throughout the course, participants are asked to consider how as leaders they can fit people to roles where their strengths are most needed. A clip from the movie “Miracle” illustrates this point by showing how the United States amateur hockey team beat the highly favored Soviet professionals in the 1980 Winter Olympics. In putting the team together, Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach, didn’t pick the “best” players according to their records; he picked players he thought would work well together. Students discuss how they might make use of this example of leadership.

Day 3

The third day is devoted to transforming a bureaucratic culture to a learning organization. This can’t be done piece by piece. An effective organization is a system in which the “hard” parts—structure, processes and systems—and the “soft” parts—skills, leadership style, values—are aligned with the system’s purpose and the organization’s strategy. The course emphasizes systems thinking. However, there are different types of systems. Organizations are social systems, and unlike mechanical and organic systems where the parts are either designed or genetically programmed to interact and support a common purpose, the parts of a social system—people—have purposes of their own. The task of leadership is to manage interactions and create a common purpose.

To transform a bureaucracy into a learning organization, it must become a complex self-organizing adaptive system. "Adaptive" means the social system fits its socio-economic and political context and is in tune with the needs of stakeholders. “Self-organizing” means that the staff have internalized both a shared purpose and operating principles that empower them to act flexibly and collaboratively with a minimum of formal rules. Participants practice designing an ideal Corps, using systems thinking, and then discuss what would have to be done to close the gaps between the present Corps and the ideal.

Day 3 ends with a discussion about learning, starting with the differences between acquiring information and understanding what it means and how to make use of it. Learning is not just about acquiring information. When results don’t match our theories, we need to question our assumptions and frames of reference. The group also discusses the importance of wisdom in a leader, and the different meanings of wisdom: good judgment based on seeing a challenge in terms of historical experience as well as foreseeing the long term consequences of a decision. Wisdom can also mean understanding people both intellectually and emotionally with, as the Old Testament says of King Solomon, “a heart that listens.”

Day 4

On day 4, the course returns to the concept of personality in relation to leadership behavior. Participants learn how personality type deepens understanding of behavior patterns which were discussed during day 2. For example, a trait like drive for achievement has a different meaning for an obsessive personality like Tiger Woods, who seeks to be the best possible expert in his field, than achievement means for a narcissistic personality like Steve Jobs who wants to change the way we work and live. Personality type illuminates what motivates behavior, what goals a person uses their talents to reach. It also helps predict how people will act under stress.

There is discussion about whether you can change your personality type. The answer is that some people have strong types that won’t change, but in those people with mixed types, their work may reinforce one or another type. However, all of us can become more productive, more active and creative when we free ourselves from fear of thinking differently from the conventional wisdom and using our talents more actively.

Personality types also help to explain the different styles of thinking needed in a company, especially strategic visioning and detail oriented process building. The course comes back again and again to the theme of partnering with others who complement your strengths. Time is also spent on describing and practicing good leadership techniques such as Marshall Goldsmith’s “feed forward”, advice on running an effective meeting, and ways of dealing with resistance to change.

A message that runs through the course is that leaders gain support when they recognize people’s strengths and communicate the conviction that together they can reach goals never before thought possible.

Finally, the participants write their thoughts about how they need to be empowered to make the Corps more of a learning organization and what they need from the Chief, the commanding general, and his senior staff. These suggestions have been summarized and passed on. By combining education about the forces that demand organizational change, understanding of self and the leadership needed to make these organizations succeed, and exercises in organizational design, according to the Corps’ Learning Center, the course has become the most popular non-engineering training offered to Corps managers.

Again, I invite readers to send me descriptions of other courses on transforming 20th century bureaucracies into learning organizations. I’ll summarize whatever I receive in future columns.

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