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Doing the wrong thing well doesn’t get us too far. So let’s look at some areas where the conventional wisdom could be misguided, causing us to head in the wrong direction.

The first is our quest for disruptive innovation. “Thinking ‘disruptively’ is counterproductive nonsense and not applicable in most settings,” argues Alex Goryachev, managing director of Cisco’s global Co-Innovation Centers, in his book Fearless Innovation. Aim for disruptive innovation, and he predicts you’ll typically fall on your face. Instead, focus on a clear vision, pragmatic strategy and execution in small, measurable doses.

That means being skeptical about the technological advances we are seeing, from artificial intelligence to robotics and self-driving cars. Be aware of them and where they might offer practical opportunities, but you don’t need to act on every one. Get back to the basics instead.

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Here’s another shibboleth to reconsider: employee engagement. It’s been the rage for the past decade, but blogger Ted Bauer says nothing much has happened. Engagement scores remain poor. That’s because the workplace is too often shockingly inhumane rather than engaging, thanks to management’s zest for control, keeping everyone hustling at triple speed.

If that’s engagement, he suggests maybe we need employee disengagement. Let people work from wherever they want, for example, COVID-19 or not. “You just need to explain to managers more and more that human beings have lives outside of their deliverables, and sometimes they need to go live those lives at the vet, the dentist, the dry cleaner, or a nooner with their significant other,” he writes. Yes, work needs to be completed and those who fall short dealt with. But relax control and seek some employee disengagement.

How about visionary leadership? It has been the rage for longer than employee engagement. It assumes that visionary leaders create change by setting a strategic direction through an enchanting story about why the change is worth pursuing, inspiring people throughout their organization to embrace the change. But research on two Western European organizations, one in energy and the other in transportation, found often the chain of visionary messaging breaks down at middle management.

“The more these misaligned managers displayed visionary leadership, the less strategic alignment and commitment were observed among their teams,” the five academics report in Harvard Business Review. “Employees of misaligned visionary managers indicated that their managers created confusion and uncertainty about what the company strategy entailed. This disengaged their teams from the company strategy.” They quote one employee: “We talk a lot about strategy with our manager. But I don’t see a clear company strategy. I rather choose to focus on my daily tasks and leave it [strategy] for what it is.”

They stress it can work when middle management is aligned with top management’s strategic vision but falls apart when that essential ingredient is missing. Instead of teaching visionary leadership as a competency to middle managers, companies should create strategic alignment among middle managers before execution of the strategy begins. “This should not be one-time communication but a dialogue; people will only take ownership of strategic change if they are consistently persuaded by its value,” they write.

Another commonly lauded ideal to be skeptical of is corporate purpose. Organizations are supposed to infuse employees with a higher goal than just churning out a product and making money. That will, in turn, create a more effective and profitable entity. Theoretically.

But Theodore Kinni, a contributing editor of Strategy+business, argues in praise of purposelessness after a study of 450,000 employees in 429 firms found no correlation between the level of employee purposefulness within a company and either return on assets or Tobin’s Q ratio, the market value of a company divided by the replacement value of its assets.

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Finally, a bold, unexpected idea that might help us tackle a major issue: gender pay equity. There have been many studies of the problem, yet equity seems elusive. But Scott Torrey, CEO of PayScale, a provider of compensation data and software, writes in Fast Company that research discovered the gender wage gap closes completely with increased pay transparency. And that doesn’t mean publicly disclosing employee salaries, just having honest and open conversations on pay, which seems to force organizations to approach pay fairly using salary market data to inform compensation policies. “It also tends to force companies to price the job, not the person, which helps to eliminate unconscious bias,” he says.

That’s a very mixed bag, and some of what I have shared is speculative, of course – provocative. But provocative is better than heading blindly in what might be the wrong, if conventionally approved, direction.

Cannonballs

  • Hiring someone after just one interview is like asking someone to marry you on the first date, says Toronto consultant Donald Cooper. You don’t know them well enough yet to make the proposal.
  • If you look hard enough, author Morgan Housel points out you’ll see optimism and pessimism existing next to each other in each successful career and company.
  • Retailers go out of business because landlords never go out of business, says entrepreneur Seth Godin, pushing back against putting the blame on big-box stores and Amazon.

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