Jim Collins in ‘Good To Great’ uses a bus analogy for business. He says that it’s the job of the leader to ‘get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats’ (1). That was solid advice for back in 2000, but in the years since there has been a re-think of what is required to organize for success. Let’s explain.
The problem with the bus metaphor is that Managers don’t want any passengers – they need drivers. Another problem is that most buses don’t go very fast, and they ain’t very agile either.
The manager’s job has traditionally been to take charge and drive the bus. However, the highest-performing sports cars, just like the highest performing organizations, don’t have passenger seats. That is just one of the reasons why we use the Formula One metaphor for success.
organizations can’t carry passengers – they are not like buses! They can and should go faster – something that most teams will attest to. Hence the racing car, rather than a bus analogy.
The bus is perfect a metaphor the traditional top-down hierarchal organization – where one person (the manager) drivers the bus. The rest are passengers. It is the dominant ‘command and control’ mode of organizing the function.
The result is that everybody is pretty much travelling at the same speed and in the same direction. Some may be happy to sit back and take in the scenery, many others will simply get bored. Again here is the problem:
No doubt if some people were let behind the wheel of their own vehicle they would go faster. There in lies the challenge – to go faster, the manager needs to let go of the controls and that is not easy. It requires a lot of trust and more besides. This is where the traditional hierarchy falls down.
Of course the hierarchal way of organizing people isn’t just limited to , it is at the centre of western commerce. However, that doesn’t mean it works. Read what any of the experts have said for more than two decades and the verdict is clear:
Classically, Organizational Guru Peter Senge warns that ‘little change can happen if it is driven only from the top’. Given that change is a priority for organizations in today’s fast moving markets the limitations of the traditional way of organizing the enterprise are clear.
While most organizations recognize the accelerating pace of change in their business environment, the response to it is typically a perverse one. That is to add new procedures and controls which end up hindering rather than helping the organization to cope with change and complexity.
It stands to reason that more procedures, committees & bureaucracy will only slow you down. But that is exactly what teams have been getting. There has been a dramatic rise in the amount of procedures and controls since 2014 and it inevitably is slowing organizations down.
To use the bus metaphor – in their attempts to cope with road conditions that are increasingly demanding and unpredictable, managers are grabbing the steering wheel even tighter. That grip is almost 3 times tighter today than it was in the year 2000 (2).
This calculation is based on the results of the BCG Complexity Index (3) which reports a 7% annual increase in bureaucratic controls and procedures within organizations, specifically the:
– Number of Procedures
– Vertical layers
– Interface structures
– Coordination structures
– Decision approvals
Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman, in their book ‘6 Simple Rules’ (Harvard Business Review Press), argue that increasing fast changing markets are not the problem, but rather ‘the layers of complexity organizations have put in place to deal with it’ (3).
They point out some of the implications in the most complicated companies:
– Managers now spend up to 60% of their time in co-ordination meetings and on reporting.
– More than 40% of staff time in non value-adding activities
– Staff are three times more likely to be dis-engaged from their work.
If we return to Jim Collins’ bus metaphor – the vehicle is getting slower and more cumbersome to operate. Both the driver and the passengers are spending a lot more time on what is happening on the bus, rather than on what is happening outside. They are paying less attention to the road.
All this means it is time to change the metaphor and more fundamentally the means of organizing teams.
Top down hierarchal control is aimed at ensuring compliance. What it won’t do is ensure commitment – indeed it often has the opposite effect. But the question for managers is which would you rather have?
Within the traditional hierarchy it is too easy for teams to develop a sense of ‘learned helplessness’, where they rely on others to solve their problems, or worse still simply blame others for those problems.
The result is that rather than being wholeheartedly committed to accelerating , a great many people are simply along for the journey! The view is that somebody else is at the wheel – it is their responsibility, or their fault!
The traditional hierarchy structure (and the bus metaphor) was suited to an age where people needed to be told (generally quite specifically) what needed to be done. The work was routine and predictable, while workers were uneducated and were not required to think for themselves.
It was, as Peter Senge points out, a time when only 5% of the workers could do what the manager could do. This situation has been reversed for at least two reasons:
– The rising level of education of the workforce generally
– The fast changing nature of the work which means that managers who haven’t directly done the work of their staff for 5 or 10 years could be completely out of touch with its present day requirements.
We have all been educated in the ‘take control’ and ‘show no weakness’ school of management. But Peter Senge’s 95:5 proposition is a real test of our willingness to adopt a style of management that is more appropriate to this contemporary age where the loyalty and commitment of staff is vital, but cannot easily be won. Here is the test:
How you answer the above probably reveals quite a lot about how you see your role as manager, the degree of potential you see within your team and most important of all your willingness to ‘let go of the wheel’.
Some managers can be quite arrogant. They believe that they are better than 95% of their staff (which of course is a self-fulfilling prophecy). But is it really true in an age where most team members have some form of third level education? Besides, it isn’t it really the level of commitment that matters? If that is the case then there is no point in the manager being more committed than 95% of his/her staff.
It takes a lot of unnecessary (and unhelpful) pressure of the manager when he/she realizes that they don’t have to provide all the answers, fix all the problems or even have the last word. As Senge and others who write on the subject of leadership advise: managers who share some of their power with their team, end up with more power (overall) rather than less.
Managers need to put their people in the driver seat, in terms of increased autonomy, empowerment and responsibility. The underlying principles are that:
– People rise to the level of responsibility that they are given
– Empowerment is key to instilling people with a sense of purpose and passion is key to high performance.
Most of the time people tend to deliver more when more is expected of them. So, the question for managers is:
The willingness to empower others is key to the transition from manager to leader. Most important of all it is key to tapping into people’s full potential and unlocking their sense of purpose and passion – that is what really fuels performance.
We started this piece by using the language of 2000 and the ‘right people on the bus’ metaphor from Jim Collins – the management guru at the time. Let’s conclude with the new message for managers from today’s leading authorities:
(1) Jim Collins, Good To Great, 2001
(2) Applying the 7% BCG Complexity Index figure annually over the period 2000 to 2014 results in a 260% increase for the period.
(3) Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman, in their book ‘6 Simple Rules’ (Harvard Business Review Press 2014)