Saturday, August 30, 2014

Management Lessons from Dr. Who: Robert Sutton Edition

The Doctor: "So tell me, what do you think of the view?"

Half-Face Man: "It is beautiful."

The Doctor: "No, it isn't. It's just far away. Everything looks too small. I prefer it down there Everything is huge. Everything is so important. Every detail, every moment, every life clung to."

Did I mention the balloon is made out of human skin?
Perhaps a reflection of how "small" people were to the cyborg.
The above is one of my favorite lines from the Season 8 premiere of Doctor Who, featuring Peter Capaldi as the brand new face of the Doctor. It takes place in a hot-air balloon above the city of London as the Doctor attempts to reason with a cyborg built largely out of human parts ("Hello, hello...rubbish robots from the dawn of time..."). It isn't getting the praise that the Doctor's alley scene or the Clara/Doctor "egomania" restaurant spat are (which are both brilliant), but it was a small glimpse into how the Doctor sees the world. "Those people down there," the Doctor growls, "they're never small to me." The line about big and small resonated with me not only on both a theological and moral level, but even from a management perspective. Stanford professor Robert Sutton has addressed the management vs. leadership trend by pointing out the danger behind it:

[T]his distinction seems to be used as a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve... “Big picture only” leaders often make decisions without considering the constraints that affect the cost and time required to implement them, and even when evidence begins mounting that it is impossible or unwise to implement their grand ideas, they often choose to push forward anyway...[T]he worst senior executives use the distinction between leadership and management as an excuse to avoid the details they really have to master to see the big picture and select the right strategies. Therefore, harking back to the Bennis theorem I quoted above, let me propose a corollary: To do the right thing, a leader needs to understand what it takes to do things right, and to make sure they actually get done” (bold mine).

Sutton sees the distinction between leadership and management as 

accurate but dangerous because it distorts how too many bosses--at all levels--view and do their work. It encourages bosses to see generating big and vague ideas as the important part of their jobs--and to treat implementation, or pesky details of any kind, as mere “management work” best done by “the little people.” Even if left it unsaid, this distinction reflects how too many bosses think and act. They use it to avoid learning about people they lead, technologies their companies use, customers they serve, and numerous other crucial little things. Among the CEOs, Brad Smith of Intuit (maker of popular software such as QuickBooks and TurboTax) reacted most strongly to these arguments. He explained they struck a nerve because of his experience with developing new managers: The best are obsessed with learning details about every aspect of the business; the worst--the least promising and most arrogant--treat such nuances as being somehow beneath them (bold mine).

Sutton warns of what he calls “Clusterfugs”: "a deadly blend of illusion, incompetence, and impatience [that] creates disasters." These are often "attributable to a failure to “do things right” rather than a failure to try to “do the right thing.” For a recent brilliant analysis of one such “clusterfug” see Harvard's Amy Edmondson’s piece on the botched Obamacare rollout. Such sad tales further reinforce my view that thinking about what could happen, and exhorting people to make it so, is a lot easier than actually getting it done. What's that old saying? Isn't it, "strategy is for amateurs and logistics are for professionals."

Organizations, according to Sutton, need both poets and plumbers. They need to "weave together the "birds eye view," the big picture, with "the worm's eye view," the nuances and tiny little actions required to make bold ideas come to life." As a 2,000 year old Time Lord, I think the Doctor understands this quite well. Managers should take note. 

With that, watch the Doctor regenerate into his newest incarnation (Capaldi) below. And watch Season 8. It's shaping up to be amazing.

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