Disagreement as way forward

Back in the early 90’s I read a book called ‘Maverick’ by Ricardo Semler. In it he tells the story of of how the hyperinflation of Brazil opened his eyes to a radical re-thinking of the way that companies worked.

The story told in the Maverick book was an eye opener for me. At the time I was working for an operations management consulting firm that was very active in process re-engineering. It was very old school and assumed there was lots of wastage from rework, poor communications and poorly designed workflow processes. In many cases that was true but (looking back) the whole operating approach was quite destructive and did not build trust between employees and management.

I was lucky enough to work in many large companies in NZ, Australia and the UK. One theme I got from all of those projects  was that management was a cynical political process in most big corporates and not surprisingly that led to conflicts of personal values and the company line.

Dissent and creativity was not valued in the culture I worked in and the net result was burnout and the death of idealism. When Semler’s book came along it was a breath of fresh air and by then I was working in a sales culture which allowed me some freedoms as long as I hit the numbers (as they say.)

At the management consulting job I had some great times and I got to work with some truly great leaders but they were few and far between.

Since then I’ve mostly worked with smaller and mid size companies where the management culture has been more life affirming but I’ve also seen more than my fair share of companies where a few super hero’s make everything work through sheer force of will rather than developing their staff and systems fully.

Besides Semler – Margaret Heffernan has written about management for many years and a recent TED talk “Dare to Disagree” where she says “good disagreement is central to progress” will surprise some. In my view it is an outstanding talk as it navigates the way through by way of anecdotes from real companies on how disagreement can build a better business.

The first question most people have is how to reconcile disagreement and robust debate with company alignment. However it is values that need to be aligned and (in my view) even they should be up for debate.

In my experience the most important thing about any business is what its core values are. If those values are sustainable and life affirming then we have a platform to build on.

I always wondered what happened to Semler and by way of an update he now has a Ted Talk

What if your job didn’t control your life? Brazilian CEO Ricardo Semler practices a radical form of corporate democracy, rethinking everything…

Filmed October 2014 at TEDGlobal 2014
Ricardo Semler: How to run a company with (almost) no rules

It is great to get an update and even better to find out that 30 years later the redefinition of work process that he started is still on track and has been a success for the staff and for him.

When looking up Semler I came across an even more interesting article by Chuck Blakeman.

Why ‘Participation Age’ Leaders Will Beat Old-School Managers, Every Time Mayer manages to the Lowest Common Denominator. Semler leads to the Highest Common Denominator. The difference is dramatic.”

Think about this.

“Superpowers vs. Delegation

Mayer is a supermanager–which allows her to get away with a lot in the short term. But it is not sustainable. When she goes, the energy goes. She has entrenched herself in decision-making, making her nearly indispensable. While at Google, Mayer pulled 250 all-nighters in five years and held up to 70 meetings a week. She sleeps four hours a night. In contrast, Semler trained others to make decisions. There are now six co-CEOs who rotate leadership every six months, allowing Semler to function at the highest levels of leadership and not make decisions. As with any great leader, he has worked hard to get out of the way. He is fully dispensable, while nobody could replace Mayer.”

If the Mayer scenario is true that is a very disempowering way to run any company.

Personally I know which corporate culture I would prefer to work in and when that culture is transparent and seeks the truth, encourages diversity or even disagreement that is a paradox worth investigating.

As it happens this talk by Chuck Blakeman is also relevant.