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Context breaks Taylor’s hold on strategy

by Mike Rollings  |  April 26, 2011  |  1 Comment

Last week’s post “Replacing Taylorism as our Management Doctrine” called for the end of Taylorism. Thankfully, I am not the first to call for the end of Taylorism or to write about human characteristics which businesses frequently ignore. There are many before me who have added significant insights into this debilitating management doctrine and all the other facets surrounding it.

For instance, Gary Hamel has spoken directly to Taylorism in the book “The Future of Management”; same for the work of MIX. Others have described how work is fundamentally changing, how the economy has changed, and how work needs to become more engaging, educational, inter-personal, and more human. Others still have enriched our understanding of human characteristics which are far more important to our success than the worship of a single management doctrine. I’m personally thankful for the work of Shoshanna Zuboff, John Seely Brown, Roger Martin, Ellen Langer, Dev Patnaik, George Soros, Seth Godin, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, Dan Ariely, Richard Coyne, Howard Gardner and several others who occupy my bookshelf.

So, no, I am not the first to suggest that we need to change the way we think about work, ourselves, or our interactions with others. But that doesn’t mean that people have actively dismantled the heuristics that we have applied blindly. Changing our Tayloristic mindset isn’t solely about changing the beliefs of executives to yield new platitudes about how the organization cares for people, or convincing a subset of managers to adopt management 2.0 precepts, or for individuals to embrace a revolutionary call for revolt. To use a term from Ellen Langer, it is about asking ourselves if we mindfully make choices with the best insights available, are we asking ourselves why we think the way we do, or are we mindlessly letting Taylorism, and the dictates created by it, guide our every decision?

It is my examination of “Why do we do what we do?” and “Why do organizations do what they do?” that leads me to this point in my research related to my favorite topic – the connection between strategy and execution… or more aptly the connection between execution and strategy. The order is important because when you reverse your point of view it becomes obvious that execution happens with little or no awareness about strategy and the outcomes being sought.

No matter how much we want to believe Taylorism and his mandate to “know exactly what you want men to do, and then seeing that they do it in the best and cheapest way”, the top-down hierarchical approach to strategy cannot direct execution activities effectively. For decades, less than 10% of all strategies (some think even less) have been executed as conceived. Again, I’m not the first to recognize the ineffectiveness of the connection between strategy and execution; Henry Mintzberg, Walter Kiechel, Tom Peters have all written about it. My curiousity lies in addressing “What can we do about the disconnect between execution and strategy?”

If all this time we’ve been looking at strategy through Taylor’s eyes, what would it look like through the eyes of an individual situated in execution? It would be the antithesis of Taylorism. Instead of “knowing what you want men to do”, those creating the strategy would realize that the collective brain of the organization, along with the external collective, is more powerful than the brains of a small pile of executives conceiving a strategy disconnected from execution. Secondly, we would not focus on “seeing that they do it”, or solely managing activities. Instead organizations would seek contribution from many individuals especially those closest to the constituency that the strategy means to affect. They would let those interactions co-create our strategy and our execution simultaneously.

Ultimately it means that every individual in an organization is operating autonomously within a strategic context and they have the ability to influence changes to that context.  Choices within execution are situated within strategy and strategies are reshaped by it. So instead of organizations being masters of efficiency and managers of activities, we reshape organizations into being masters of context and enablers of contribution. We all become Contextual Strategists.

Category: altered-states  economy  human-behavior  management  strategic-planning  transformation  

Tags: behavior  business-outcome-mindset  catalyst-na  innovation  taylorism  transformation  value  

Mike Rollings
Research VP
5 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Mike Rollings is VP of Gartner Research within the Professional Effectiveness team. His research discusses what IT professionals need to know about transformation, innovation, human behavior, contextual strategy, collaborative organizational change, communication and influence, and cross-discipline effectiveness . His research can be read by IT professionals with access to Gartner for Technical Professionals (GTP) research. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Context breaks Taylor’s hold on strategy

  1. Pankaj says:

    Taylorism derives from the objectives of an organization. The objective of an organization is the “maximization of profit” for the benefit of the few (owners of capital in earlier years, top management now). Everything else is a means to that end. Even the so called human changes in management and management theory still serve this end of “profit maximization” (corporate social responsibility, participative management etc). To really change the Taylor approach, there needs to be a change in organizational objectives.

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