You can paint a Picasso by numbers, but it doesn’t make you one of the Masters.  You can manage by policies and procedures, but it doesn’t make you a Leader.

Leaders who manage by task find that employees feel alienated from the organisation’s core mission and disconnected from its purpose.  Over the last year, we have worked with clients who have invested millions in training only to find that they have transformed their Head Office into rule enforcers, and failed to deliver their commercial objectives.

The problems are real: entertainment venues who score 100% on their internal customer service score cards, but see plummeting figures on TripAdvisor; finance managers who have applied ‘best practice’ with their internal comms, but face a ‘them & us’ divide wherever they turn; sales managers who streamline their tasks, but in doing so leave no time to engage with customers.

This pattern is not new.  Children coached to pass their SATs, are left with no real passion for learning.  A tanker load of sub-prime mortgages is presented on an Excel sheet as a solid investment.  Sick patients are left waiting in ambulances, delaying their official arrival at the hospital, to reduce the recorded wait times.  In our techno-centric world, we slip into the predictable routine of box-ticking like a comfortable slipper.

The commercial rationale for such standardisation is also robust.  During times of political and economic uncertainty, tasks provide a method of control, ostensibly limiting the risk to the business.  They allow us to draw conclusions and create clarity where mess exists. They give us to place to hide from the complexity of managing people – their emotions, challenges, disagreements and nuances.

Unfortunately, if we manage by numbers we sacrifice our humanity to blind Pavlovian obedience.  We live for quick wins, but forfeit the creativity, innovation, resilience and resourcefulness of the people we employ.  Managers become the controlling landlords, their employees their faithful servants.

This is a fundamental error that presents a significant risk to any organisation.

In our knowledge based economy, management by numbers creates an environment that undermines the very brain power that drives our GDP.  A culture of heightened control limits the resources of the organisation, reduces its connection to purpose and undermines performance.  Playing by the rules, but failing to understand the organisation’s mission, represents a modern epidemic in management practice.

The solution is clear: articulate leadership based on mutual respect and authentic dialogue with all employees.  This delivers an organisation that is curious, resourceful, respectful and non-judgemental.  It facilitates an organisation that makes the most informed decisions, creates clear intentions and engenders relationships of trust throughout a business.

Rules and policies become servants of the company’s purpose, to be adopted, amended and dropped according to the needs of any situation.

This approach is not without its challenges.  It threatens established command & control power dynamics; it calls out the popular corporate games that underpin gossip and catch-me-if-you-can pastimes.  It also requires the courage of senior managers to relinquish their control to the skills and humanity of their entire workforce.

However, it transforms managers into leaders, and builds the capacity to connect employees to the organisations core vision and values.  When our economic fortunes are dependent on people, not machines, this is at the heart of an organisation’s sustainable competitive advantage.


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