The career dangers of ‘sticking things out’

There are a number of ‘good’ habits that are typical of talented and hard-working executives. These ‘good’ habits are actually bad for your career: what is needed to achieve full career potential is a more Machiavellian approach.

One of these ‘good’ habits that are actually bad for your career is ‘sticking things out’ – feeling obliged to see a project through to its conclusion, regardless of the impact on your career. The example below is based on conversations with Hayley [name changed] and the apparently promising project that actually cost her four years, in career terms.

True story: a blind alley

Hayley is an engineering manager with an automotive company. She is beginning to make her mark, along with many other female engineers, in a male-dominated industry, but she recalls one particular period in her career that delayed her career progression.

“When I was just beginning to make a name for myself as an engineer, I was put in charge of a development project for a new piece of technology. It was very exciting – well, it was to me. In the auto business, there aren’t many real breakthroughs.
I was offered the chance to lead the project, and I thought it had the potential to be very exciting; I really thought it could transform my career. Potentially, it could have done. But the project began to get bogged down.

“There were unforeseen problems; the costs began to escalate; we kept going back for more money, but getting money got harder. People got nervous and, to be fair, it wasn’t easy for us to prove that the new technology would save enough money or generate enough income to justify the costs.

“The long and the short of it was that I stayed with that project too long, even when it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going anywhere – or at least not going anywhere fast enough. The project finally got canned and I didn’t really get any kudos from it.

“It looks quite good on my CV, if you understand the business, because it was very advanced in terms of the technology; it also taught me a great deal about running a project, managing people and presenting to senior management. But from the perspective of my company, I’d been given a project and it hadn’t delivered. Worse than that, although I was leading the project, it wasn’t technically a promotion, so the project had taken me out of the loop in terms of the usual career opportunities and I was side-lined as a result.

“If I’d been a bit more career-savvy and less determined to make the project work, I would have moved company after the first year. My CV was looking good; leading the project was giving me real management experience and I should have leveraged that for a new and better job with a different company.

“I don’t tend to work that way; I’m very dedicated. I feel like I’m obliged to see things through once I’ve taken them on. What actually happened was that when the project finally got closed down I was still a product engineer; at that point, the company didn’t feel obliged to run around looking for a promotion for me. Not for a while anyway.

“In the end, I moved to a different manufacturer anyway, because I felt I was playing catch-up at my old employer. In career terms, I would say the project cost me four years. I can persuade myself that it was valuable in terms of experience, but none of us is getting any younger.

“I know where I want to be in five years’ time, and I won’t let anything distract me again. I need to be certain that what I’m working on is going to be seen as successful. I want to move up into senior management, and to do that I have to stay in the mainstream and get myself known around the business. Even great projects can be a bit of a blind alley.”

A blind alley: analysis

In career terms, the role that currently occupies your time has only one function: to allow you to shine, so that your career can move on the next stage. There is a perfect moment at which you can gain maximum leverage from your current successes in order to gain a more senior role – and that moment is not necessarily at the natural ‘end’ of a project or when some obvious milestone has been reached.

People are promoted for their potential as much as for their current contributions. Being seen to put something new and hopeful in place, which can now be handed over for someone else to take on, allows you to use your talents in a more senior role, make an impact there, and move on up again.

This sense of perpetual motion is vital in building a successful career; getting bogged down for many years working in the same role costs vital time and begins to look like failure – because you have stopped moving up. Timing is everything.
To use a sporting analogy: it’s essential to turn periods of dominance into points on the board. If you’re the star of the moment, use that to move your career on to the next stage. ‘Sticking things out’ from a sense of obligation is very bad for your career.

A version of his article first appeared in Training Journal.

The True Story was adapted from ‘The 6 Habits of Highly unSuccessful Executives’ in  Machiavellian Intelligence: How to survive and thrive in the modern corporation


Developing a Performance Culture Part II

In our previous article, Developing A Performance Culture, we explored what business can learn from the performing arts. We asked you to think about a time when you perhaps sang in a choir or played in a band or orchestra; performed in a play or musical or did a stand-up routine. When we perform like that, we are fully engaged. Our energy is our performance. It is impossible to deliver a disengaged performance. (Well, it is possible, but the performance will bomb and the fear of ‘dying’ usually energises us!)

We also talked about the ensemble mindset of all great performers: the way they know that the quality of their own performance depends on the quality of the support that they get from their fellow artists. Great performers actively want their fellow performers to be great. They work hard to help them put on a brilliant performance of their own, so that the whole ensemble can feed off the resulting energy and new ideas.

We imagined how well businesses could run if they developed a ‘performance culture’ in which team members behaved like a top-flight ensemble, pouring their energy into a barnstorming performance, with everyone working together to put on the best show they are capable of.

In the previous article, we set out 5 questions that businesses can usefully ask themselves about their own ‘performance’:

What play are we in and what is our role?
Where is our theatre of action?
Have we built a trusting, connected partnership or ensemble?
Are we rehearsing creatively?
Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?

Here are a further 5 interesting questions from the arts that can throw light on our business performance cultures.

Do we have the right people in the room?

Many business decisions are taken in the absence of the people who will be influenced by that decision and the people whose help is needed to turn that decision into reality. We tend to rely too much on ‘protagonists’ – a handful of business leaders – and assume that they are capable of acting successfully on their own. Decisions that are taken in our boardrooms supposedly ‘cascade down’ the imaginary pyramids of our organisational structures. In reality, of course, these top-down sets of instruction tend to become garbled and misunderstood as they cascade down; they also tend to encounter some real-life glitches that – funnily enough – someone further ‘down’ the hierarchical pyramid would have spotted immediately.

To make well-informed decisions, and to be sure that ideas hatched in the boardroom can be turned into reality throughout the organisation, we need to develop business cultures that actively involve the whole organisation. Delivery men and women need to talk to finance directors; engineers need to spend time with marketeers; managing directors need to spend time with check-out assistants. These different voices bring different and entirely valid perspectives that must be heard, and may be revelatory. In healthy organisational cultures, this is already happening. But we still take some major decisions in rooms where everyone is a protagonist and there are no ‘supporting roles’ present. As our colleague, Piers Ibbotson, teaching fellow at the UK’s Warwick University business school and an ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor and director says, ‘It is exactly like trying to put on a production of Hamlet with a room full of Hamlets’.

The play, Hamlet, cannot be understood without the presence of the Ghost, the Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio, the soldiers, servants, players, gravediggers and all the rest of the cast. Every character – and everyone who contributes to the overall performance – affects the performance as a whole. If the stage directions say, ‘A flourish of trumpets and ordnance shot off, within’, the technical guys need to be sure they can deliver this before Horatio, startled, turns to Hamlet and asks, ‘What does this mean my lord?’ If Horatio waits in vain for the trumpets and cannons, abandons hope and turns to Hamlet to ask, desperately, ‘What does this mean, my lord?’ only for the trumpets and canons suddenly to blare and thunder out, drowning Hamlet’s reply – then the performance has descended into farce. It’s the same with business cultures; everything has to work together. The devil is in the detail more than the strategy.

If we hope to put on winning business performances, we need to get the right people in the room and let them ‘rehearse’ different scenarios in search of the best solution. Allowing a room full of Hamlets to make all key decisions is a recipe for disaster.

Where is the art in what we do?

It’s one thing to be technically proficient; outstanding performances are also artistically wonderful.

Great painters, dancers and musicians are, first and foremost, masters of their craft, and this enables them to perform in a way that lifts their work beyond excellence and turns it into something uplifting and transformational. Technical mastery is merely the starting point at which it becomes possible to develop real artistry. Top performances are technically near-perfect, by definition. Winning performances are ‘works of art’.
We may be at the top of our game in finance, sales, management or engineering; design or coding; marketing or manufacturing. Our organisation may be producing great products or services. But here’s the question: we may be technically brilliant, but are we aesthetically wonderful? Where is the art in what we do?

ballet dancer colour don quixote
Turning Technical Perfection Into Art

We use aesthetic judgements to a far greater extent than we tend to acknowledge. In the face of real complexity, there are many possible solutions, all of which resist simple analysis – just as there are an infinite number of ways of performing any great work of theatre or music, some more successful, aesthetically, than others. We recognise when artists have succeeded in lifting something out of the merely technically excellent and are delivering an outstanding performance because, as human beings, we are all moved and affected in the same way; what the performers are doing reaches out and touches us. We make the same judgements about businesses: we recognise when businesses are trying hard to engage with us and make us happy. The world of business is not different from other fields of human endeavour – it can’t be reduced to sets of formulae, whatever the management consultants may say. It is our uniquely human and creative input that creates a winning performance. The question for all of us, increasingly, is: ‘Are our solutions beautiful enough to succeed?’

Is our leadership shared, allowed and passed around?

In business, as in life, we feel the urge to control things. The world is messy and dangerous, and we feel safer when we have imposed order on it. This is not foolish, but there is a trade-off to be made. When we have complete order, there is no messy creativity or excited inspiration; when we have complete control, there are no happy surprises.

Ensembles are directed, not controlled. Leadership in the ensemble is shared, allowed, and passed around. The result is a far more dynamic system that that represented by established, static models of leadership, with their rigid hierarchies of command and control.

This shared power is also exhilarating. It provides a great proportion of the joy that performing artists find in performance. I set out in one direction, but your idea is slightly different. As we work together, in the moment, to find the best solution, we share in the joy of creativity. We are both equal before the task of producing something new and, hopefully, wonderful. If anyone attempts to force a solution on the ensemble, this becomes like ‘push-pull’ in a dancing partnership: if one dancer tries to impose his or her will on the other – if their ‘lead’ is not accepted – their partner ends up being ‘pushed around’. In dance as in business, this is horrid.

Successful directors nudge and ‘bend’ the performance of ensembles in the desired direction. They recognise that, while they may be in a position of power, it is the organisation that holds the force. In order to drive creativity and inspiration, they offer constraints rather than restraints. The key phrase is not, ‘Do not do this or that’, but rather, ‘What happens if we try it this way?’

The ‘leader as theatre director’ enables and guides the performance of the ensemble but will not be part of the performance itself. Their leadership has quite literally been passed on to the performers, who must now take to the boards on their own to interpret the vision that was forged in rehearsal, observed and guided by the director.

The ‘leader as conductor’ remains very much a part of the ensemble, ‘leading from the front.’ The ensemble takes its cue from the embodied leadership of the conductor, creating a performance in which leader and ensemble are inextricably linked. There is an interesting corollary to this approach to leadership, which is that the leader of the moment must bring their unique personality to bear on the task, otherwise their contribution is meaningless. Offering a lead while pretending to be someone else is simply perverse. This is the real meaning of ‘authentic’ leadership, which is not to offer some idealised, heroic version of oneself as leader, but to offer one’s real self and to allow the other members of the ensemble to work with that. To do this, leaders must be transparent and unafraid. This ability to be unafraid and trusting is at the heart of what is involved in building a genuine ensemble.

Leaders in business are likely to find themselves carrying out both of these roles (the leader as theatre director or as orchestral conductor) at different times. The ‘leader as commander issuing orders’ is to be avoided.

Are we helping one another to perform brilliantly?

At the heart of all performance art is the interesting paradox that performers have large egos – shrinking violets do not clamour to get onto a stage in front of an audience and invite people to judge their performance – yet all performing artists understand that their own performance is completely dependent on the performance of their fellow artists. There are a few exceptions, obviously. The stand-up comedian lives or dies by himself or herself. The star soloist performs with a supporting band or orchestra with whom they have spent little time rehearsing, and it is the band’s or orchestra’s job to support the soloist in every twist and turn of their performance. But these examples do not represent true ensembles. In an ensemble, it is impossible to win on one’s own. We may get accolades for our individual contribution, but it is the performance as a whole that is judged. It is only possible to deliver a truly winning performance by encouraging and enabling wonderful performances from every other member of the ensemble. Their energy and brilliance then feeds into our own performance, driving us to perform better; the whole ensemble begins to come ‘on song’ with that indefinable but instantly recognisable crackle and spark. At that point, it is possible that we will be judged to have delivered a winning performance.

Cary Grant et al His Girl Friday
Crackle and Spark: Cary Grant , Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday

In the world of work, we are very bad at building genuine ensembles. The culture of individual success and individual reward undermines this. Good ensemble work is collaborative, or it is nothing. Individual egos and hierarchies must be subsumed to the greater good – the energy of large individual egos must be harnessed to deliver the crackling, sparking ensemble performance, rather than to allow one individual ego to grandstand and dominate proceedings at the expense of the coherence of the performance itself.

Are we delivering a winning performance?

Performing artists focus on ‘getting their performance across’ to their audience: on telling the story; on successfully transmitting the ideas and emotions inherent in the piece that they are performing and adding new nuances and meanings through their own performance.

Most business cultures think in terms of products rather than emotions. If we have made a product that people want to buy, we believe that we have succeeded. We focus on the ‘consumers’ of our products and think about what we have to do to keep that consumption coming. But, as consumers, our relationship with our chosen brands is more complex than that. We don’t ‘consume’ our favourite brands so much as ‘enjoy’ them – and our enjoyment comes from far more than the simple act of consumption. The very best corporations put on a great overall performance. Everything about our interaction with the corporation delights us – or it should. The moment that one aspect of the performance jars, or disappoints, the relationship is damaged. They have struck a false note. There are always ready examples. Car companies don’t seem so trustworthy when we discover they are prepared to use ‘defeat’ software to cheat tests designed to enforce democratically-agreed emission regulations. Multinational corporations don’t seem so loveable when we find they are doing everything in their power not to pay local taxes. A company that gives us the run around with an automated phone system designed to save them money at the expense of our time and patience is slipping down the performance league. It’s the whole performance that matters.

audience clapping lights
Delighting Our Audiences

Successful companies do not merely sell great products and services, they put on a winning performance – a great show. The front-of-house staff are friendly and enthusiastic; the seats are comfortable; the gin and tonics in the crush bar are perfect and the ice-cream is yummy. The show itself is brilliant, with great individual performances and fabulous ensemble work; the set is ingenious; the lighting is astonishing and sound system blows your socks off. You leave the theatre on a high and immediately start planning how soon you can go back again.

Now that is a show that will run and run. Developing business cultures that focus on delivering audience-wowing performances in the same way, creating crackling and sparking ensembles of top performers ‘putting on great show’, would keep our audiences coming back for more.

Read more about developing a performance culture and what business can learn from the arts in Teaching Leaders to Dance

Read more about the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success

We acknowledge the contribution of Piers Ibbotson, ex-Royal Shakespeare Company member and now Teaching Fellow at the UK’s Warwick University Business School. Piers is the author of The Illusion of Leadership and a contributor to Perform To Win.

The difference between learning a new leadership theory and being a better leader

The brain processes explicit knowledge – ‘knowing how’ – differently from the way it processes implicit knowledge – ‘knowing that’. This has significant implications for executive coaching, argue Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A recent article in MIT News reports that neuroscientists have, for the first time, identified the different neural signatures of implicit and explicit learning – the difference between knowing how to ride a bike and being able to remember facts and events. We’ve known since the 1950s that the two processes were different, but this is the first time that neuroscientists have been able to distinguish between the different brain-wave patterns produced by each.

Perhaps surprisingly, we think this remarkable difference is of great significance in the world of executive coaching and leadership development.

Changing behaviours

By the time most people reach senior ranks, they know most of the stuff they need to know to do their job well. We all have to keep up with the latest developments and with new ideas, so we do have to keep cramming more stuff into the poor old brain box. But that’s not the point. What most senior leadership development programmes are about (or should be about) is changing behaviours, not learning new facts; ‘learning how’ not ‘learning what’.

We used to assume that all learning was the same, in terms of brain processes. Then, in 1953, a man called Henry Molaison underwent brain surgery in an attempt to stop his severe epileptic seizures. Given the state of medical understanding of how the brain actually worked and what functions its different regions might actually have, the 1950s procedure was the rough equivalent of bashing a computer’s hard drive with a hammer in the hope of fixing a processing problem. But it was well meant.

The operation did alleviate Molaison’s devastating seizures; unfortunately, it also destroyed his ability to create new memories. He could remember almost nothing from the year or so before his operation and not everything before then; he knew about the stock market crash of 1929 and about World War II, and could remember things about his life, though not with specific dates attached. But he absolutely could not form any new memories. He could not remember what he had for breakfast and he was never able to recognise the researcher who worked with him for decades after the operation. He left notes in his wallet to remind him that his father was dead and his mother was in a nursing home, and this sad knowledge came to him afresh every time he read the notes.

Despite his shaky memory of facts and events from the past and complete absence of any short-term memory, Molaison did retain his social skills: he was pleasant and even amusing company, even though (or, perhaps, because!) he had no idea whether his companion was a stranger or an old friend.

Because Molaison was intelligent and functional in every respect other than his amnesia, he was the perfect experimental subject for neuroscientists. He was also a willing subject, happily performing rather tedious tests over and over again since, for him, each repeated test seemed fresh and new.

Henry Molaison’s loss – our gain

Although Molaison could not form new memories, he could learn new motor skills. He was taught to trace the shape of five-pointed star by looking at the reflection of the star and his hand in a mirror, for example. This sounds simple, but is surprisingly hard. Everything is backwards; when you move your hand the way you think it should go, it goes the other way. You have to train the hand tracing the shape to do the opposite of what it instinctively does.

Molaison learned how to do this, and he got better at it – but he had no memory of having learned the skill. Whenever he was given the task, it seemed to him that he had never seen it before, but, in fact, he was getting better at it all the time, to his own surprise. Learning ‘how to do’ something is an entirely different process from remembering facts and events.

As the experiments progressed it became clear, for the first time in history, that the brain deals with ‘knowing that’ information in a completely different way from how it deals with ‘knowing how.’

‘Knowing that’ we should doesn’t mean we know how

Large parts of our behaviour have nothing to do with ‘what we know’ and can remember. In business, as in life, success is not merely dependent on what we know, it is highly dependent on our behaviours; on how we work with other people. At The Human Energy Organisation, we have long believed that giving business leaders new information – ‘telling them stuff’ – is unlikely to be enough to change their habitual behaviours. And habitual behaviours are what really matter. When we discuss ‘organisational culture’, it is a collection of habitual behaviours that we really mean. The usual management approach to organisational culture is information-heavy; it’s about new mission/vision/culture statements: ‘We take great pride in fostering a culture of openness and transparency.’ That kind of thing. We all know that these things are vital, but saying that we believe in them doesn’t make them happen. ‘Knowing that’ is not the same as ‘knowing how’.

We believe that real behaviours are more important than the best of intentions, and that the way to get business leaders actually to change their behaviours is to allow them to experience what better behaviours might feel like. You can tell people that they need to be less command-oriented and more ensemble-minded until the cows come home, but until they ‘get’ this at some emotional level, their actual behaviours are unlikely to change.  It’s the difference between learning some new leadership theory and actually being a better leader.

Behavioural lessons from performing artists

That’s why we are such committed believers in arts-based leadership development.

Exposing business leaders to top performing artists, so that they experience how these artists work together as an ensemble to deliver an outstanding performance, is a powerful way to help leaders reassess and change their working practices. It gives them an insight into the way in which all great artists sometimes lead, and sometimes support; how performing artists know that the brilliance of their own performance is dependent on the equally brilliant performance of their fellow artists; how an audience (their ‘consumers’) can only be truly won over when the everyone is striking sparks off each other to deliver a great ensemble performance.

Getting business leaders up close and personal with great actors, theatre directors, dancers, jazz musicians and classical conductors is a remarkably effective way to generate such gut understanding and significant ‘ah-ha’ moments leading to real behavioural change.

And that is because of the difference between ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’.


If you would like to hear more about arts-based programmes for your own team, please do Contact Us

You can read more about arts-based leadership development in the business novel, Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for business and personal success

A short account of how arts-based development sessions work is also given in a series of articles on Culture University

An in-depth account of the dance-related aspects of Dr Powell’s leadership development programmes was published by the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics

Scientific Management: The Pernicious Persistence Of Taylorism

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

In the early 1900s, the US was swept up with a drive for improved ‘efficiency’ in every field of endeavour; a drive that was significant enough to earn its own title: the Efficiency Movement. This movement is seen by historians as a part of the wider Progressive Era – the early twentieth-century drive to clean up corruption in politics, break up industrial monopolies and generally to allow the cleansing waters of modernism to flow through the mucky stables of late nineteenth-century American civic life.

Unfortunately, some aspects of the Efficiency Movement – particularly Frederick Winslow Taylor’s ideas about Scientific Management, often referred to as Taylorism – are still lodged in the modern corporation’s subconscious. These industrial-era, managerial behaviours are still affecting corporate behaviour today – in ways that are entirely inappropriate to the knowledge economy.

The Gilded Age

The last decades of the nineteenth century have been known as ‘the Gilded Age’ since Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner published A Gilded Age: A Tale Of Today in 1873. The word ‘gilded’ was meant to imply that the era’s outward show of prosperity and opulence hid a great deal of poverty and squalor. This was an epoch in which great corporations were founded and great fortunes were made. Cornelius Vanderbilt (who died in 1877) had progressed from sailing a ferryboat in Upper New York Bay to founding a mighty steamship empire, before moving with great prescience into the new railway business and becoming one of the richest Americans of all time. By 1880, John D. Rockefeller had effectively monopolised the US oil industry, refining 90% of the country’s oil at a time when the US was the only oil producer in the world. When the steel magnate, Andrew Carnegie, sold Carnegie Steel to the Wall Street banker, J.P. Morgan, in 1901, as Morgan set about consolidating the US steel industry, Carnegie’s share of the $480 million sale price was $225 million – something like $6 billion at present values. J. P. Morgan had previously arranged the merger, in 1892, of the great inventor Thomas Edison’s Edison General Electric Company with the Thomson-Houston Electric Company, to form General Electric.

‘From barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilisation’

The core infrastructure of modern America, and the foundation for its future wealth creation, was built in a few decades during this Second Industrial Revolution, a period generally taken to run from the mid-1880s to the outbreak of the First World War – by which time the internal combustion engine had been developed and Henry Ford and others were beginning to introduce the automobile to the modern world. It was a time of great technological advances, rapid industrialisation and disturbing social upheaval: the mega-rich of the day lived lives of ostentatious splendour, while rural Americans and immigrants flooded into rapidly growing and heavily polluted cities, creating conditions depressingly reminiscent of the overcrowded new townships that sprung up around the first ‘manufactories’ in Britain during the first Industrial Revolution, one hundred years earlier. Political corruption in late nineteenth-century, Gilded Age America was rife.

A visiting French Prime Minister, George Clemenceau, is said to have commented at the time that America seemed to be only country in history to have gone from barbarism to decadence without the usual interval of civilisation. Little wonder, then, that the early twentieth century was a period of reform, a Progressive Era in which politics and industry set out to clean up their act.

The birth of Taylorism

Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of Scientific Management and prime mover of the Efficiency Movement, quoted President Theodore Roosevelt in the introduction to his 1911 paper, The Principles of Scientific Management. ‘President Roosevelt in his [1908] address to the Governors at the White House,’ wrote Taylor, ‘prophetically remarked that “The conservation of our national resources is only preliminary to the larger question of national efficiency.”’

The need to conserve of resources and raw materials was only one part of the picture, Taylor argued; what was needed also was to prevent the ‘larger wastes of human effort, which go on every day through such of our acts as are blundering, ill-directed, or inefficient.’

Taylor’s beguilingly modern, ‘scientific’ approach was to analyse industrial tasks in great detail in order to discern the most efficient, ‘one best way’ of carrying out that task. Workers who were capable of working at the newly discovered peak rate of efficiency should be selected, trained and individually rewarded. The appeal of Scientific Management in the Progressive Era was clear: here was a modern, scientifically-based approach that would drive greater productivity and do away with the old haphazard, undisciplined, inefficient nineteenth-century ways of working.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s whole philosophy was based on the notion that workers were incapable of discerning the ‘science’ of the most efficient way of carrying out their task. He was very blunt about this, arguing that some kinds of worker were ‘too stupid’ to understand the science needed to analyse their own work. Even where some more skilled workers were capable of analysing their own tasks, he argued, this would not be the best use of their time. A new breed of managers and planners was needed to analyse tasks into their component parts and devise the one best way of carrying out the task. Managers would take on what Taylor referred to as ‘the burden’ of analysing and planning the workers’ tasks, freeing them up to carry out their tasks as efficiently as possible.

In an ideal world, wrote Taylor, ‘the work of every workman is fully planned out by the management at least one day in advance, and each man receives in most cases complete written instructions, describing in detail the task which he is to accomplish, as well as the means to be used in doing the work.’ Sadly, notes Taylor, ‘Human nature is such, however, that many of the workmen, if left to themselves, would pay but little attention to their written instructions.’ Hence the need for constant and detailed supervision of the workforce.

Workers, under Taylorism, had been reduced to pre-programmed automatons, mindlessly following the instructions of a supposedly superior managerial class.

Does that sound at all familiar?

Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas

Our book, My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas argues that Taylor’s view of the organisation, where workers work and managers do all of the thinking and planning, has proved stubbornly persistent. It has resulted in a large number of unexamined industrial-era behaviors that are entirely unsuited to the knowledge economy. The book identifies a number of sadly all too familiar industrial-era behaviors to do with organisational approaches to control, measurement and – yes – efficiency, but also to do with how organisations communicate with their members, how leadership is perceived and practised and even how the workplace is designed and what its main function is thought to be.

The good news, we argue, is that by identifying these outmoded behaviors and addressing them, little by little and piece by piece, organisations can achieve radical transformation via an aggregation of marginal gains, without the trauma and risk associated with sudden, wholesale change.

This has to be attempted. In fact, we must be successful in this transformation of our organisations. Otherwise, we will continue to wonder why the modern workforce is unhappy, stressed and disengaged, and we will continue to squander the energy and creativity that people bring to work with them every day only to be actively prevented from deploying these great assets by a system of corporate management that has its roots in the early twentieth century.

Modern nations need ideas and human energy. These are plentifully available, as they always have been, but we have to find ways of tapping into them. If we fail, we are in danger of entering another Gilded Age, an age of surface glitter, where a few great men and women make huge advances and reap the rewards of their efforts, but a large proportion of the population are prevented from contributing to the overall success and wealth of the nation. We are in danger of losing our competitive edge, as we rely on the ideas and the energy of a few, while denying the majority the kind of working environment and organisational culture that can release their own innovatory skills, self-motivation and entrepreneurial instincts.

Every nation needs its great men and women – its Vanderbilt’s, Carnegie’s, Rockefeller’s and Morgan’s; its Edison’s and its Ford’s – but, in successful nations, the achievements of the few are fuelled by the ideas and energy of the many. One clear part of the solution is to do away, finally, with the pernicious persistence of Taylorism in the workplace and to create a new enabling and empowering working environment fit for the Age of Ideas.

10 Organisational Behaviours Stuck in the Industrial Era

In another post, ‘Creating an Organisational Culture for the Age of Ideas’, we argued that the culture of many organisations is still unthinkingly based on the old industrial-era mindset of scientific management and command and control. We suggested that there are a number of persistent organisational behaviors that have their origins in this outmoded culture that are now actively preventing the things that modern organisations know they most need: employee engagement, commitment and creativity, for example. This idea was fully explored in our book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organisation from the industrial era to the age of ideas.

The book was based on Mark Powell’s twenty years’ experience in management and strategy consultancy and on his ten-year experience of designing and running leadership and management development programmes at the University of Oxford. More precisely, the book was the result of Mark’s thousands of conversations with people at all levels of organisations large and small, and across several different cultures. The end result was the identification of ten organisational ‘paradoxes’ – behaviors intended to advance the organisation’s interests that are often experienced by employees in a negative way. The behaviors are paradoxical because they tend to produce results that are the exact opposite of what the organisation sets out to achieve.

In this article there is only enough space to give a short description of these ten paradoxical behaviours and their unintended outcomes, but we think that this will be enough to give you a good insight into our thinking. We all tend to recognize these industrial-era organisational behaviors, just as we also instinctively recognise what ‘good’ behaviors would look like, and why.

Ten paradoxes of organisational behavior


Management seeks control, but control can be experienced as removing autonomy and preventing self-organisation and innovation. Managers gain ‘control’ but lose commitment and creative input.


Control requires measurements and indicators, but these can become obsessive, short-termist and even misleading. More importantly, when we try to ‘measure’ people with techniques similar to those that we use to measure processes, people feel labelled, diminished and manipulated.


Mechanical and logistical processes must be as efficient as possible, but it’s different when people are involved. Some petty ‘efficiencies’ impact people very negatively, saving a few dollars at an immeasurable cost in lost energy.


Organisations know that they need to innovate, but much organisational behaviour is specifically designed to prevent it. Innovative thinking is ‘risky’, by definition, and the ‘control’ mindset hates risk.


Communication is a dialogue, not a set of instructions and most organisational modes of communication are not genuine dialogues: information ‘cascades’ down imaginary pyramids; meetings create an illusion of real debate. ‘Communication’ seems to be increasing in volume and declining in quality.

Physical environment

Workspaces should be designed to encourage good communication, chance encounters and the flow of ideas. Industrial-era workspaces are designed to keep individuals in their allocated, functional space and enable supervision.


People are rarely allowed to organize their own work. When they are, the results can be remarkable, as shown in this Harvard Business Review paper on GE Aviation’s move to a ‘teaming’ work structure.


Leadership should be devolved, but is often hoarded. Everyone should be encouraged to lead whenever their natural leadership skills are most appropriate and valuable.


New ideas tend to happen at boundaries, when people from different parts of the organisation reach out and interact, but few organisations manage to enable productive networking throughout the whole operation. The industrial-era organisation sees ‘networks’ as connections to be exploited; real networks are organic and mutually beneficial.

Diversity of opinion

Organisations tend to become homogenous environments where contrarians are unwelcome. Diversity of gender and ethnicity is no guarantee of true diversity of opinion; like any ecosystem, organisations need a real diversity of ideas to evolve and survive in a rapidly changing environment.

Little by little, piece by piece

In our book, as in our earlier post, we argued that the process that was most likely to succeed in transforming organisational cultures was one of changing behaviors ‘little by little and piece by piece’ – identifying the outmoded behavior patterns that are doing the most damage to the organisation’s culture and tackling them one by one. We also believe that improvements made to any one aspect of organisational behavior are highly likely to spill over onto other behaviors – once we realise that we are not communicating effectively, to take one example, it may become obvious that we are not networking effectively either; or that our leadership is hierarchical rather than devolved, which is why we are preventing self-organisation . . . once the flaw in one behavior is recognised and addressed, the implications can ripple out through the organisation quite rapidly.

Energising organisational cultures

We hope that the ‘ten paradoxical behaviors’ described here might be a useful starting point for organisations setting out to explore which behaviors they might most need to change in order to create an enabling, empowering culture fit for the age of ideas. We can make intellectual decisions about what we would like our organisational culture to be, but the foundation of those cultures is the set of behaviors, often unwittingly inherited from our relatively recent process of industrialisation, that we enact each day at work without considering their impact on our colleagues and the consequent effect on the organisation’s energy level. Change those behaviors, and you energise the culture.

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