Benjamin Ellis by SylwiaPresley (cc)

Last week I shared some thoughts at MediaCamp London #3, which seem good to offer up here. Coffee in hand, I talked through the things I’ve discovered about the management of knowledge-driven and creative businesses over this past decade. I can’t say that they are complete thoughts, but in the way of a blogger, I’ll share them here for you for agree/disagree/clarify/extend. The slides I used are on slideshare already:

I use the phrase “cat herding” because it is about the best I have to describe managing very bright, creative people. For the avoidance for doubt, the term isn’t meant to be derogatory, it’s simply one I’ve come to use for the skills involved in leading highly-autonomous, bright folk – The kind of people you don’t realise the potential of by providing a to-do list. There were three sections to the talk: Being a great cat herder, being a great herd member and being a great cat. I’ll cover the first in this post.

Being a great cat herder

Whenever I ask people what makes a good manager, and what makes a bad one, a standard set of themes emerge. For the good manager, it is around emotional intelligence – “being understood/understanding”, “supportive/encouraging”, “being fair”. For the bad it is around process: “not explaining things”, “being absent/being overly present – a micromanager” and so on. Good managers are people rather than process oriented. They get the process things done, but they don’t let them dominate. Perhaps they are better referred to as leaders? I’m increasingly convinced that you manage things, but lead people. They are different skills.

Knowledge workers and creatives generally don’t like being told what to do or how to do it. And rightly so. If you hire people for their skills and knowledge, then you aren’t going to go far if you don’t use them. In a knowledge-business, the boss is no longer the smartest person in the room for every (or any?) given question.

Realise the Potential

One of the biggest failings of managers – or perhaps one of the differences between a manager and a leader – rests in realising the potential of their team. If you’ve hired bright people, you don’t need to tell them what to do, you need to explain why you want them to do it, and then provide them with what they need to be successful. The ‘what’ that needs doing may be different than you at first thought, and in today’s real-time business world it might change while it is being done too. The ‘why’ rarely shifts, and if it does, generally the need for the project goes away with it.

Give your team a clear purpose. Explain what is happening, provide the background, and an explanation of not just what is happening, but why it is happening. The key to an outstanding business is unlocking the discretionary effort of its staff, and that means giving people the motivation to go the extra mile and do their best, rather than “what will do”. Enable people to give their all, and throw their full selves into the business. To borrow from Maslow, that means meeting their needs, from the physiological, through providing stability and certainty, to providing a sense belonging in the business and an appreciation of what they bring to it.

Traditional business management looks at people, processes and systems – although mostly processes and systems. Today’s business environment has simultaneously commoditised processes and systems, so that there is no competitive differentiation in them, and become so fast moving as to render most of them useless before they can be implemented.

Differentiation in today’s market place rests in having great people, and building an environment that lets them operate at their highest level. In my early working life, in retail, the businesses were driven by process, but all of the businesses I have worked in over the last few decades have been driven by skills and knowledge. It’s a big shift in the way that a business is built, and in the kind of systems that are required.

Be More Than Slightly Better

The scales that balance Innovation and Execution have also shifted, tipping relentlessly towards innovation. Being competitive means constantly disrupting your business to create better products and services, and more closely meet the needs of those all-important customers. Small incremental improvements in process are no longer enough to keep up with the competition, and differentiation comes from the philosophy of the business as much as from strategy – witness Toyota’s recent retrenchment back to its core philosophy. Philosophy drives strategy, and strategy drives execution, and the latter two are subject to a rapidly changing market place.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Milestone Planner resonates with much of this thinking. It enables emergent planning, balancing clear ownership with shared responsibility for what happens, and the ability to change tactics in real-time. In recent years I have become convinced that social media, or rather social technology, IS the new process, or at least that it is the scaffolding around which the necessary process can be built. Putting people in the middle of everything, and connecting them with the relevant information, propagated via their social graph, is the core of a knowledge-intensive business. Connecting all of this with the mission of the company, and a clear vision of where it is headed, creates an unstoppable force that drives great execution, and that is the responsibility of every good cat herder.

Next, part 2: Being a good member of the herd.