Peter Drucker would be rolling in his grave

So much thinking. So much talk. So little progress.

Our people, having experienced lock-down, can help quickly change outmoded management models but only if we listen to them.

Watching the annual Drucker Forum in Vienna over the last few years has been an interesting exercise as it involves many of the luminaries of management thinking and talking about the challenges of organizational management in the modern era. The themes chosen for each year are always thought-provoking yet one is always left with the feeling that the conclusions reached never quite go far enough although there are always some seriously good sound-bites. The reflection was made at some stage that Peter Drucker himself would not have been impressed with the lack of progress the world had made over the last decade. People and technology always feature in some form or another, and in recent years there has been a strong focus on how those two elements could work together, and the dangers from unregulated use of information technology and the data it produces. There’s no doubt whatever if Peter Drucker was still around he’d be endorsing people-first.

The reflection was made at some stage that Peter Drucker himself would not have been impressed with the lack of progress over the last decade.

There’s also a wealth of management research which, perhaps not unsurprisingly, strongly suggests that most senior management teams desperately see the need to transform their organizations as they transition away from command-and-control but that very few know what the starting point looks like, what the journey might include and how they ultimately judge success. In simple terms, the first steps to change seem elusive.

Now, the global pandemic has accelerated conversations around how organizations could function. Working-from-home has surfaced a raft of issues around structure, data and people, including what productivity might look like when your people work out of sight. One senior manager commented that their organization ‘had reached the limits of paper’ and that this has been starkly demonstrated when working in distributed mode. Becoming less reliant on paper obviously has huge implications for most organizations with entire business models built around generating reports.

Working-from-home has surfaced a raft of issues around structure, data and people, including what productivity might look like when your people work out of sight.

It’s very clear that most teams were unprepared for different ways of working including a distributed work model and therefore relied on conference technology to connect up their people and keep information flowing, at least to some degree. For most teams gaps quickly become evident when it came to individual and team work management. This isn’t unexpected as many teams struggled for connected-up management when working in the same physical spaces let alone working from home. Tools, such as email, and heavy reliance on ‘status’ meetings, are still the approaches of choice for many teams. During lock-down there was a lot of emotion – ‘we’re here for you; you must be here for us’ – that seems to be rapidly dissipating as people are required to return to the office. In some cases it feels like an attempt to continue with management models that were already outmoded but entrenched in spite of feedback from staff that working-from-home was good thing.

Spending time talking with people about their experiences during lock-down has been illuminating. The people who were productive at work because they were highly organized were also productive at home, especially when their managers trusted them. In some cases, they felt they were more productive as they were less distracted by left-field ‘make-work-requests’ and unnecessary ‘fill-up-space’ meetings. This certainly merits the exploration of mixed work models with time spent both at home and in the office. Those less organized around their work-plans were unproductive and relied on conference-calls as a way to look like they were actually getting stuff done. Without tools to reveal the actual state-of-play it was impossible to hold people to account. Many reflected on how important the full range of visual clues were to them when conference-calling eliminated them from the picture. Many managers commented about working in a ‘management fog’ where uncertainty dominated their work days and caused anxiety to them and others. Some who knew and trusted their people simply went with the flow. Others, as soon as lock-down lifted, required their people to return to work, because out-of-sight seemed to threaten their embedded thinking about productivity. What seems clear is there are lots of interesting conversations to be had and different ways of working to be explored that must involve elements of working-from-home, and which take into account how critical the availability of data for decision-making becomes. What is equally evident is how this might threaten a raft of middle managers who rely on current structures and processes to justify their positions.

It seems to me that in the spirit of never wasting a good crisis the door is now open to real organizational innovation, and the businesses that embrace this innovation will grow and prosper. Then again perhaps after so many years of looking to break down existing models I’m simply seeing things through my Elton John rose-tinted glasses.

What do you think? Is now the time for change and who should be driving it?

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