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Controls, Control, and Management

The probability of an event’s being meaningful is a much more important datum than the event itself.

We are rapidly acquiring great capacity to design controls in business and in other social institutions, based on a great improvement in techniques, especially the ability to process and analyze large masses of data very fast. What does this mean for “control”? Especially, what are the requirements for these greatly improved controls to give better control to management? For, in the task of a manager, controls are purely a means to an end; the end is control. If we deal with a human being in a social institution, controls must become personal motivation that leads to control. A translation is required before the information yielded by the controls can become grounds for action—the translation of one kind of information into another, which we call perception. In the social institution there is a second complexity, a second “uncertainty principle.” It is almost impossible to prefigure the responses appropriate to a certain event in a social situation.

But a control-reading “profits are falling” does not indicate, with any degree of probability, the response “raise prices,” let alone by how much; the control-reading “sales are falling” does not indicate the response “cut prices,” and so on. The event itself may not even be meaningful. But even if it is, it is by no means certain what it means.

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Overage Executives

Stay out of decisions if one won’t be around to help bail out the organization.

An employer should have in place a policy for the over-sixties in managerial and professional ranks. The basic rule, and one that should be clearly established and firmly enforced, is that people beyond their early sixties should ease out of major managerial responsibilities. It is a sensible rule for anyone, and not only for the executive, to stay out of decisions if one won’t be around to help bail out the company when the decisions cause trouble a few years down the road—as most of them do. The older executive should move into work one performs on one’s own rather than be the “boss.” This way, he or she specializes and concentrates on one major contribution, advises, teaches, sets standards, and resolves conflicts, rather than works as a “manager.” The Japanese have “counselors,” and they work very effectively, sometimes well into their eighties.

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“Window-Maker” Positions

A widow-maker position is a job that defeats two competent people in a row.

“Widow-maker” is the term that nineteenth-century New England shipbuilders used to describe a well-built new ship that still managed to have two fatal accidents in a row. Instead of attempting to fix the problems with the ship, they immediately broke it up to prevent another accident from occurring. In organizations, a widow-maker is a job that defeats two competent people in a row. It will almost certainly defeat a third one, no matter how competent. The only thing to do is to abolish the widow-maker position and restructure the work. Widow-makers typically appear when an organization experiences rapid growth or rapid change. I have since seen this phenomenon is a lot of organizations—for example, in a university that within ten years had moved from being primarily an undergraduate teaching institution to becoming a major research university. That killed off two excellent people who took on the presidency as it had been structured the old way, and by the way, any number of deans—again, these positions could be filled successfully only after the university had restructured itself thoroughly.

The “widow-maker” job is usually the result of accident. One person who somehow combined temperamental characteristics that are not usually found in one person created the job and acquitted himself or herself well. In other words, what looked like a logical job was an accident of personality rather than the result of a genuine function. But one cannot replace personality.

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Staffing Decisions

Where there are peaks, there are valleys.

The people decision is a big gamble—by basing it on what a person can do, it at least becomes a rational gamble. Effective executives make strength productive. They fill positions and promote based upon what a person can do—not to minimize weakness but to maximize strength. Strong people always have strong weaknesses. Where there are peaks there are valleys. There is no such thing as a “good person”; “good for what?” is the question. Look for excellence in one major area, and not for performance that gets by all around. Human excellence can only be achieved in one area, or at the most, in very few. Always start out with what a person should be able to do well and then demand that he or she really do it.

There is one area where weakness in itself is of importance and relevance. By themselves character and integrity do not accomplish anything. But their absence faults everything else. Here is the one area where weakness is an absolute disqualification.

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A Noncompetitive Life

No one can expect to live very long without experiencing a serious setback in one’s life or in one’s work.

Given the competitive struggle, a growing number of highly successful knowledge workers of both sexes—business managers, university teachers, museum directors, doctors—plateau in their forties. They know they have achieved all they will achieve. If their work is all they have, they are in trouble. Knowledge workers therefore need to develop, preferably while they are still quite young, a noncompetitive life and community of their own, and some serious outside interest. This outside interest will give them the opportunity for personal contribution and achievement beyond the workplace.

No one can expect to live very long without experiencing a serious setback in one’s life or in one’s work. There is the competent engineer who at age forty-two is being passed over for promotion in the company. The engineer now knows that he has not been very successful in his job. But in his outside activity—for example, as treasurer in his local church—he has achieved success and continues to have success. And, one’s own family may break up, but in that outside activity, there is still a community.

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Managing Oneself: Revolution in Society

Managing oneself is based on these realities: Workers are likely to outlive organizations, and the knowledge worker has mobility.

Managing oneself is a REVOLUTION in human affairs. It requires new and unprecedented things from the individual, and especially from the knowledge worker. For, in effect, it demands that each knowledge worker think and behave as a chief executive officer. It also requires an almost 180-degree change in the knowledge workers’ thoughts and actions from what most of us still take for granted as the way to think and the way to act.

The shift from manual workers who do as they are being told—either by the task or by the boss—to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves profoundly challenges social structure. For every existing society, even the most “individualist” one, takes two things for granted, if only subconsciously: Organizations outlive workers, and most people stay put. Managing oneself is based on the very opposite realities. In the United States MOBILITY is accepted. But even in the United States, workers outliving organizations—and with it the need to be prepared for a second and different half of one’s life—is a revolution for which practically no one is prepared. Nor is any existing institution, for example, the present retirement system.

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Managing Oneself: The Second Half

What to do with the second half of one’s life?

Knowledge workers are able physically to keep on working into old age, and well beyond any traditional retirement age. But they run a new risk: they may become mentally finished. What’s commonly called “burnout,” the most common affliction of the fortysomething knowledge worker, is very rarely the result of stress. Its common, all too common, cause is boredom on the job.

In one big and highly successful company top management said to me: “Our engineers are slacking off. Can you try to find out why?” And so I talked to about a dozen very competent, very successful, very well paid people in engineering. And they all said: “My job is important to the success of the company. I like it. I have done it now for about ten years and I am very good at it and I am very proud of it. But I can do it now in my sleep. It no longer challenges me. I am just plain bored. I no longer look forward to coming into the office every morning.” Yet the obvious answer, that is to rotate people, would have been the wrong answer. These people are topflight specialists. What they needed was to regain some true interest. And once they had that—one of them, for instance, started to tutor high school students in math and science—suddenly their work, too, became again satisfying.

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Managing the Boss

There is nothing quite as conducive to success as a successful and rapidly promoted superior.

Almost everybody has at least one boss. And the trend is for knowledge workers to have an increasing number of bosses, an increasing number of people on whose approval and appraisal they depend, and whose support they need.

There are keys to success in managing bosses. First, put down on a piece of paper a “boss list,” everyone to whom you are accountable, everyone who appraises you and your work, everyone on whom you depend to make effective your work and that of your people. Next, go to each of the people on the boss list at least once a year and ask, “What do I do and what do my people do that helps you do your job?” And, “What do we do that hampers you and makes life more difficult for you?” It is your job to enable each of your bosses to perform as unique individuals according to their working styles. Your bosses should feel comfortable that you are playing to their strengths and safeguarding them from their limitations and weaknesses.

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