“Rules for Revolutionaries”

This is a post I wrote elsewhere, in November 2007.

I went to a talk called “Rules for Revolutionaries”; since this was being given at the Edinburgh University Business School, you can guess that it wasn’t trying to get all the budding MBA students to emulate Che Guvera or Fidel Castro; instead it was proposing a different way of looking at management.

I should have warmed to this: it hit a lot of the right buttons for me; but I didn’t.

The speaker, Stuart Corrigan (his consultancy is called Vanguard Scotland), espoused the view that the way most people and organisations manage their businesses is wrong, rooted in business practices from the nineteenth century rather than the twenty first – and he listed what was wrong: managing people rather than the system (despite research showing that people are only responsible for 10% of productivity, the organisation of the system for 90%); having an internal focus, rather than taking a customer-centric perspective; measuring things that are easy to measure (usually historic figures), rather than the capacity and capability of the system to perform; basing decisions on opinion rather than data; taking decisions and managing remotely from where the work happens, rather than managing close to the work.

My limited experience makes me believe that he is right.

Corrigan then proposed five rules to change this; and this is where he lost me. These may be the things to do to bring about transformational change; but they seemed far too prescriptive: “do these things, and you will transform your business, become successful, and the sun will shine eternally.” Perhaps I just don’t like people telling me what to do; perhaps I distrust people with a panacea; perhaps people telling me what to do as a panacea – the worst of both – I find doubly difficult.

The five rules – change your thinking; change your purpose; change the measures; change the work; change how you work (they are also on the website) – do make sense, but setting them out as rules seems foolish – since when did revolutionaries follow rules? Surely they should be breaking them and creating something new.

And that was another problem: I didn’t feel much of this was new. It certainly didn’t feel like a revolution. It took from Deming and the influence he had over Japanese industry (which enabled Japan to beat a USA which was industrially stuck in the processes of Taylor and Ford – although I think these late 19th century industrialists may be misunderstood, too – at least by me!); it took from lean management, the six sigma process of GE and others, and the human resources management theories of empowerment, management and leadership.

Corrigan talked a good game – he told good stories and entertaining examples – but it was also a bit flat: that he was postulating “do this and that will happen” whilst talking up the importance of understanding the complex systems which business works in seemed false – there are no quick fixes.

I think he is right – management styles should change, and that needs the way work is organised to change – but being prescriptive and telling people what to do isn’t the way to change it.

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