For the past 100 years, management has shifted between periods of hard and soft. Hard is the scientific, analytical approach that traces back to mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor's efforts to improve industrial efficiency, while the soft approach is the human relations thinking that came out of Australian psychologist Elton Mayo's work. These days, companies try to combine both, in a managerial yin-yang.
But Boston Consulting Group senior partners Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman argue it's not working. The hard approach has become dangerously counterproductive, as new structures, processes and systems are slapped in place to supposedly improve performance. The soft approach also tries to control the individual, even if that is disguised, using emotional rather than financial incentives like celebration and encouraging management styles to address the problems created by the hard approach.
The result is a complexity that smothers businesses, as the two consultants increasingly found when they tried to help companies that could not deliver on expectations.
"When we looked at the root causes in these companies, the best practices they were applying to their problems made it worse," Mr. Morieux said in an interview. "The hard and soft creates vicious circles, in which managers are trapped and people are suffering."
Instead of hard and soft, they believe management needs to focus on another yin-yang: Autonomy and co-operation. Autonomy frees people to use their full intelligence and energy at work. But companies need to encourage – if not impel – people to use that autonomy to enhance the effectiveness of others. "You want people to confront complexity through autonomy and co-operation," he said.
Unfortunately, autonomy and co-operation are threatened by the hard approach. Control lies elsewhere, with the executives setting the rules, directions and targets that must be met. He points out that the Balanced Scorecards many companies use to evaluate performance and reward employees by combining financial and non-financial objectives actually gets in the way of enhancing co-operation. "When people co-operate, it can't be measured. There is no way to measure it," he said.
In their recent book Six Simple Rules, the consultants lay out an alternative approach, although since the rules are highly general – albeit beguiling – they probably won't qualify in many managers' minds as simple to apply:
1. Understand what your people do
To avoid the smokescreen of the hard and soft approaches, you need to understand what your employees do. Autonomy won't work unless someone understands how his or her efforts combine with others. The consultants highlight the interdependencies among people that arise when the work one person does has an impact on the ability of others to complete their tasks. "Wherever there is interdependence, there needs to be co-operation," they write.
2. Support integrators
An integrator is an individual or work unit that fosters co-operation for the firm's benefit. The integrator need not be a manager, but certainly managers have to be trained in this role – it should, in fact, be at the heart of their work. They need the power and interest to enhance co-operation. "My autonomy will be more effective when I can benefit from the co-operation of others through the work of the integrators," Mr. Morieux said in the interview.
3. Spread power more broadly
Often organizations will shift power around between people and groups. If the head office gets power, for example, it's at the expense of countries where the firm operates. Or project managers gain power at the expense of line managers. Instead, companies must be careful not to empower some people while disempowering others. "You need to add new cards, so power is enhanced, rather than just trading power," Mr. Morieux said.
4. Increase reciprocity
Make people more dependent on others so there is more reason to co-operate. This comes through designing what they call "rich objectives," which are composed of three elements: Collective output objectives, which all must work to achieve; individual input objectives, which are achieved essentially alone; and overlap objectives, which define what a person does in his or her own role that increases the effectiveness of others.
5. Extend the shadow of the future
Create feedback loops that force people to see the consequences of their actions. An example is the auto manufacturer that moved its design engineers after a certain period into the after-sales department, where they had to deal with warranties. To make their future work easier, they designed cars that didn't require as many repairs.
6. Reward those who co-operate
Provide incentives so people use their autonomy to work with others. It's a radical change in today's management approach where incentives are focused on individual achievement. But if we are to move from the frustrating complexity of today's workplace, we need to find a new dynamic of autonomy and co-operation.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter