Leaders must let go of industrial era paradigms to succeed

In brainstorming for a creative idea or driving an organizational transformation project, industrial era metrics simply fail to gauge the contribution of every individual in the team. (iStockphoto)
In brainstorming for a creative idea or driving an organizational transformation project, industrial era metrics simply fail to gauge the contribution of every individual in the team. (iStockphoto)


  • Today’s age of value generation requires corporations to follow a model that openly outmodes the old factory-bred HR orientation. Taylor’s words on productivity are decreasing relevant.

The difference between successful and not-so-successful organizations eventually boils down to the degree of authenticity within them. This is the delta between what leaders profess and what the organization’s unsaid behavioural expectation is. Here are some examples.

Almost every organization proclaims how it values its employee’s mental health, physical well-being and family time, and yet many actually reward supposed workaholics who are at work regardless of hours or weekends. It is now a scientifically proven fact that multi-tasking or doing more than one demanding job simultaneously is suboptimal, and yet, multi-taskers who are apparently juggling several balls are lauded as heroes. Similarly, it has been established that eight hours of sleep is essential for good health and cognitive sharpness especially in critical decision-making. Indeed, every hour of sleep deprivation from the eight is supposed to be the equivalent of having a drink of alcohol. While an employee would probably get fired for being drunk on duty, leaders who work 16-hour days are routinely extolled. Elaborate ‘Delegation of Authority’ documents are periodically crafted and issued. But on the ground, there is dilution of power and diffusion of decision-making. While there are constant proclamations of desired qualities like ‘agility’ and an ‘ownership mindset’, actual processes are becoming excruciatingly twisted and the ability to take initiative increasingly corralled. On one hand, there are declarations on the virtues of ‘collaboration’ and ‘one team,’ etc, but appraisal mechanisms pit one colleague against the other in fratricidal bell curves.

One of the reasons that some organizations have a high degree of doublespeak is that they haven’t really made the transition from an industrial era of thinking, where the industry is at the centre and employees just man the machines, into the intellectual era, where the employee is at the centre of the value chain, with the machines supporting her. Let me explain.

Frederick Taylor, the father of the assembly-line system, was clear about the roles of workers and management. His exact words were: “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing standards and cooperation (of workers) rests with the management alone." In the industrial era, the employer ‘bought’ the time of the worker and units of work were ‘enforced,’ standardized and easy to measure. There were set planning tables of how long it would take to assemble a car or build a house. So much so that this sort of thinking percolated into our education system, with questions like “If it takes 10 men 20 days to lay 10km of road, how long will it take 15 men to do the same job?" This time and material kind of thinking, where the organization ‘owned’ the physical presence of the employee on the work premises worked well in the industrial era and still does in some labour-intensive industries. However, when it comes to intellectual work, this mindset fails.

It is relatively easier to measure and reward the work output of individuals in, say, a labour workforce or a sales team, but complex in an intellectual environment or a large conglomerate. In brainstorming for a creative idea, for example, or working on bleeding-edge technology, or driving an organizational transformation project, industrial era metrics simply fail to gauge the contribution of every individual in the team. For instance, which team member inspired the game-changing solution, or who galvanized the team’s morale, or, for that matter, who committed an early-stage mistake that lost crores later, or whose toxicity killed the team’s spirit.

Since individual contributions in the knowledge era require constructs alien to organizations with industrial mindsets, ‘busyness’ tends to become the proxy for productivity and proximity to power centres becomes the surrogate for status in the organization. Those who work late in office, reply to emails in the wee hours of the morning, or those who seem to be overwhelmed with reams of projects and committees become exemplars of the organization. Lauded and feted for basically continuing industrial-age paradigms in an intellectual era. An era where the leader is expected to create a garden with diverse flora and fauna, nurturing and tending to each employee as an individual with individual potentials, problems and aspirations, and not a homogeneous cubicle farm where the employee is a faceless, family-less and individuality-less fixture to fulfil a standardized role.

The academic answer to the question posed before is that 15 men will lay the road in about 13 days. But of course, the real-world answer is that it depends on who the men are, their experience, how purposefully they are led and motivated for the task. A few decades ago, there was a strong correlation between the value of a company and the number of its employees. That correlation is now broken, requiring sincere adoption of frameworks designed for the knowledge era instead of trying to navigate the new world with old mindsets while proclaiming otherwise.

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