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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited
The Next Common Sense: An E-Manager's Guide to Mastering Complexity
Michael Lissack and Johan RoosNicholas Brealey23 November 2000£12.99 (pbk)
Keywords Organizational theory, Interaction, Work organization
In this new and expanded edition of The Next Common Sense, Lissack and founding director of Swiss-based Imagination Lab Foundation, Johan Roos, make the complexity of today's corporate environment understandable, and coherence practical, as the new strategy for today's e-managers. They do not attempt to offer pat answers and easy solutions. Instead, they reveal how nature organises itself, exposing the conceit of our attempts to organise ourselves differently, and discuss the leading of oneself as much as that of others. They offer guiding principles to enable managers to master the complex challenges, exploring the power of metaphor in organisational life, and as the foundation of the next common sense itself.
The Internet has certainly altered the environment in which the manager's job is done, but not the job itself. The Next Common Sense recognises that the "e" in e-manager describes the environment, not the task: adding an e (or an m) does not change the job of management. What matters, at every level from CEOs to junior colleagues, is being able to act coherently in the face of complexity.
The old common sense was about how to deal with the separate and free-standing units of a complicated world. The next common sense is about mastering the complex swirl of interweaving events and situations around us now. Life is faster, more interconnected, more interdependent and more interrelated in the online communities of AOL that in, for example, the supply chain of a car manufacturer.
The world of work group relationships, strategic alliances and customer networks that we collectively call an "organisation" is all about the effects of relationships between people inside and outside the organisation, rather than about controlling distinct groups of employees, customers and suppliers. The new world is a complex one of interactions rather than distinct entities.
What worked as strategic advice in the old complicated world turns out to be just poor directions in the new complex, Internet-based one. Lissack and Roos demonstrate, in a down-to-earth, practical way, that mastering complexity through finding, nurturing and communicating coherence are the critical tasks for today's e-managers and executives.
Rich with examples of how today's top companies – AOL, Southwest Airlines, Intel and Visa among others – have rejected traditional management practices to create the new organisational community of the future, they offer a five-step action plan for achieving coherence, and detail the ten key management principles essential to the practice of the next common sense.
Practising the next common sense
Use simple guiding principles. Life is complex enough without adding complication to it. The guiding principles that work are those that are aligned around basic values. It works much better to be like Steelcase and say "we help people to work efficiently" than to be like Novartis, and have a 20-page lesson plan on how to do so. When your employees need a week off to study your operations manual and your mission, you have a problem …
Respect mental models, yours and others'. Those mental models hold the key to how interactions are shaped. Every action is interpreted through your mental model and each of your following actions is based on that interpretation. As with you, so too with the other person. But that person's model may be very different. Not only is that OK, but it matters a lot.
Use landscape metaphors to describe both the environment and processes taking place within it. Humans are genetically programmed to deal with landscapes – the same is not true for 2 6 2 matrices, board games, accounting statements and bubble diagrams. Do not make interpretation any harder than it need be …
Combine and recombine. The advantage of building-blocks is that they come apart and can be put together in new ways. In the world to which the old common sense was attuned, it seemed self-evident to deal with apparent complexity by trying to break things apart and then deal with the pieces separately. This was a sound strategy when entities mattered more than interactions. But the interactive world of relationships and processes is very different.
Recognise your multiple roles, do not hide from them. In each role, what is called to the foreground will differ, as will the context we label background. To assert otherwise is to risk dropping your 18-month-old off at the important client's for daycare, and taking the babysitter out for an expensive lunch. Not only do you have multiple roles, but so does everyone around you. When the roles are aligned, purposeful action happens easily. When they are not …
Create canyons, not canals. Rivers need lots of room, yet when bounded by canyon walls they are still free to explore. Not with a canal: millions, if not billions, go into keeping that river right where it ought to be – and, as with rivers, so too with other flowing processes like new product development, recruiting, marketing, and customer service. Building a canal for these flows is locking them into a reality that will be outdated before the canal ever opens … Canyons work better – they require more digging but much less maintenance.
Tell stories to allow others the benefit of shared experiences. Merely repeating conclusions or instructions will not do the trick. Stories allow others to relate to fact, context and emotion and to bring their own interpretation to what they hear or read. Conclusions and instructions provide no room for the person hearing the conclusion or receiving the instruction. Meaning happens from interaction, not from blind, passive reception …
Send out scouting parties to probe the environment. What Steve Jobs found at Xerox PARC you can also find in your landscape – but you have to look, and look with an open mind. How can you ascribe background or foreground to what you cannot see or have never heard about? The biggest risk of personal newspapers on the Internet is that we only read what we ask for … Do not let this happen to you – the scene is the Gobi Desert, in the Jurassic era. Two dinosaurs locked in combat did not even notice the approaching sandstorm that buried them both. Their fossils, with jaws still clasped around each other's neckbones, were not discovered until 1994; two dinosaurs so intent on mutual destruction that they were oblivious of the impending storm.
Post and attend to road signs. Labels tag items to make them easier to find, but they come with a downside; too much labelling or the wrong kind allows the labels to become a fence. To individuals, tags are how they get known for doing things – they are where credit is assigned; but to the organisation that tag may signal, "This is Fred's domain, back off. Good for Fred in the short run, but bad for the organisation in the not so short … Balance is essential. The old common sense separated people with signs. Some set them up. Some labelled them. Some read them. Many wanted them torn down. The next common sense is about recognising these tensions and developing a balance; the tensions cannot be avoided, but the good parts can be capitalised on …
Fuel coherence with aligned words. Language and word choice form a manager's primary tool. Word choice matters; words affect mindsets and mental models, so aligning words with one another, with underlying values and actions, can be a potent self-enhancing force. Used wisely, sound guidance can grow from the seeds of aligned words; used poorly, all you get are weeds. The right words uttered at the right time can be very effective.
Southward Airlines embodies coherence by having each of its employees "think and act like an owner". Owners think differently from non-owners; ownership is a state of mind. Southwest has eliminated inflexible work rules and rigid job descriptions, so that its people can assume ownership for getting the job done and getting the planes out on time, regardless of whose "official" responsibility it is. This gives the employees the flexibility to help one another when needed, and as a result the whole operation becomes more adaptive. Employees adopt a "whatever if takes" mentality. Southwest mechanics and pilots have the freedom and latitude to help ramp agents to load bags. When a flight is running late because of bad weather, it is not uncommon to see pilots helping customers in wheelchairs board the plane, helping the operations agents take boarding passes, or the flight attendants clean up the cabin between flights. All of these actions are their way of adapting to the situation and taking ownership for getting customers on board more quickly. They are practising the next common sense.