Common-Sense Management: Something So Rare It's a Goddamn Super Power
Management isn't rocket science - despite what lots of consultants, academics and gurus want you to think. In fact, some very successful pioneers are focused on a most powerful, but often overlooked style of management: common-sense management.
Over 4 years of travels to >100 of the world's most progressive workplaces, we were most inspired by those based on little more than good common sense. Instead of speaking in vague terms or over-complicated theories, these pioneers thrive on simplicity.
Here are three great examples:
- Buurtzorg's founder and CEO, Jos de Blok, fiercely opposes all kinds of management nonsense. He is known for saying things like: "I think strategy just gets in the way of us doing our job", and "For us, work is all about building relationships with clients, without all that strategic baloney around it". His organization (of 14,000 nurses and 0 managers) is built on simplicity and common sense. Notably, they outperform their peers.
- At iconic Semco we learned of an elegant style of management based on common-sense ideas. For example, 'participative management' just means that if I've come across a problem, I’m invited to gather like-minded people and take charge of fixing it. This common-sense attitude is underlined with quotes like: "People are responsible adults at home. So why do we suddenly treat them as adolescents...when they reach the workplace?"
- Spanish transformation company K2K believes change cannot be forced upon people. Instead, they invite employees to change by letting them vote. “Do you want to transform into a progressive workplace: Yes or No?” If less than 80% vote Yes, it's a no-go. If more than 80% are in favor of change, they proceed. This is not just beautifully simple, it’s also proven. K2K has supported ~50 companies through change.
Ironically, common sense is not all that common - especially in management. Let me list some simple yet elegant solutions adopted by various pioneers.
If growth sucks, don't grow
Most companies lose their edge when they grow. Then, futile attempts to exercise control, with paralyzing 'fixes', are added. For example: more meetings, more rules, more procedures, more reporting lines, and more KPIs. In short: as organizations grow, tradition suggests adding stifling bureaucracy.
This creates the exact opposite of what was intended. It frustrates innovation, wastes time, kills motivation and slows organizations down. In short: growth in this case leads to damage.
Most companies lose their edge when they grow. Then, futile attempts to exercise control, with paralyzing 'fixes', are added.
What common sense solutions are there for not falling into this trap?
- Stop growing
- Split before you become too big
An example of the first approach is the iconic team at Basecamp. They don't want to grow for growth's sake. They prefer to stay relatively small (56 people), keep their product line limited and enjoy healthy business and calm.
The second approach is also simple: split the company before it's too big. Over-simplistic as it sounds, this works wonders in many progressive organizations. They form into a 'network of teams' structure in which small teams run as separate businesses.
Take a look at Finext, Handelsbanken, and Buurtzorg, for instance. They thrive because every time a team becomes too big, they split it. This preserves the spirit of a small company within one that is large, adaptive and extremely successful.
If you want to be a leader, find some followers
In most companies, people are promoted in a top-down fashion. Higher-ups decide who gets to be leaders of teams. This doesn't make any sense. In fact, it leads to mass incompetency in business.
If you want to be a leader, you better find some followers.
Just compare this to a personal situation to see the stupidity. Imagine you and your friends want to organize a ski-trip. Would it make sense to get an outsider to decide who should manage the group? Would it make sense to appoint a person from outside the group, who now has to delegate work, make all decisions, and set the targets?
Of course not. A revolution would be the least of your worries. To avoid this common - yet shortsighted - way of appointing leaders, let team members select their leaders. They are in the best position to decide who should lead them. It's what companies like Haufe Umantis, Happy, K2K and Haier have done for years, with great success.
Become a leader by motivating a group of followers, not by ass-kissing the boss.
Conflict of interest? Resolve it!
From the moment someone applies for a job, there can be a conflict of interest. Take the salary negotiation: the applicant wants the highest possible salary, while the company benefits from a lower one. A childish negotiation follows, to reach a consensus neither finds offensive.
Another potential conflict of interest is overtime. When overtime is paid (and rewarded), employees have an incentive to work as many hours as possible and thus lower their productivity. We see this in some manufacturing companies. A battle of individual and organizational interests ensues.
What can be done to avoid this? Commonsense pioneers say: "Make sure the individual and the company want the same." Align the goals of the individual and the organization.
For example, why not abolish overtime? Instead, reward successful outcomes, so that employees focus on success. For example, at Spanish Ner Group, employees have a financial stake in the outcome. 30% of profits are spread among all workers. So, for every €1 million in profits, the workers divide €300,000 among themselves. At Irizar profit-sharing meant many factory workers received an additional €25,000 (!) pay for many years.
The beauty of such practices lies in their simplicity. All of a sudden, the interests of both organizations and individuals are aligned.
If you want to be less busy, stop working so much
People love to say they are busy. But they dislike being busy. But they still rush from meeting to meeting, from deadline to deadline. There is little time for reflection or relaxation. This is not new, but it's getting worse.
Luckily, there is a bunch of companies who show there is a simple solution: stop working so much! At the Belgian Ministry of Social Security, everyone fills just 80% of the working hours with prescribed roles and tasks. Then 10% is reserved for unforeseen activities, plus 10% for innovation projects.
If you want to be less busy, stop working so much
Common sense and simplicity
Common sense doesn't live up to its name, especially in business. Or, as the Urban Dictionary puts it, it’s so rare it's a goddamn super power.
Let's make common sense more common. It will help businesses thrive and people flourish.
Any common sense management tips to add to this list? Drop them in the comments below.
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If you want people in a multigenerational workforce to develop and be aware of their skills & skills gaps, stop
- making up stupid job titles,
- making job descriptions complex.
- making learning so generic.
- making up acronyms of skills & experience.
Collaborate & communicate with your people in commonly understood language. Make multi skilled roles a successful/attractive career path not the standard management career ladders.
You are conflating "common sense" and "simplicity", the latter should definitely always be pursued but the former needs to be used with care as it is often used to dismiss exploring new or different ways to do things.
Common sense can be used to justify continuing with existing ways of working, it can be used to reinforce gender roles, it can be used to dismiss ideas or results that don't fit with existing expectations.
In the quote usually attributed to Einstein "Common Sense Is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down in the mind before age eighteen".
My dad used to berate me as a kid, "use your common sense Curtis!" or he would call it, "common judgement", or "CJ" for short. Apparently I didn't have much of it. Likely because I would ask 'outside the mainstream' questions and try and test a variety of edges or norms.
CommonSense is a very elastic concept, and rooted in the speaker's world, what they think is normative. Racism was commonsense for many, and sadly, still is for some.
Agree with Mark Inskip here. Simplicity or management from first principals, is the more apt description of the companies you describe above.
For most of the world, those type of management schemas are not common sense. One day they will be.
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How are work outcomes affected by the treatment of those who do it? I have been exploring this question for ~50 years. In that time, one comment stuck with me more than any other. It was made in 1998 when I interviewed a group of men in Indianapolis who had redesigned most of the US city’s waste collection and disposal operations. “We are no longer expected to park our brains at the door when we come to work.”