Last year an article in Mckinsey Quarterly empirically revealed what every one of us has known instinctively since we started our career – middle management kills creativity. As default self preservation programme, it kicks in the moment a person reaches the middle managerial level.
What the article didn’t inform was it just articulated the age old Peter Principle propounded by Professor Lawrence J Peter in 1969 where he said – “everybody rises to their level of incompetence”.
The theory is something like this. A person who does a good job at a certain level say as salesperson is rewarded by being promoted as a sales manager. However, the person has neither invested any time in preparing himself or herself for the new role nor the organisation has bothered with such “inanity”.
Faced with new challenges the same smart worker turns into a smart ass and resorts to petty politicking to stay where he or she is. This low level cunning employed to hide their incompetence is what leads to a lot of disenchantment, resentment and in some cases revolt in the rank and file. The person who was absolutely fine till the other day doing what they knew best turn into an overnight villain due to their lack of depth and skills in dealing with the new set of challenges. This situation is what Peter termed – “Level of incompetence”.
Since Peter’s seminal work, hundreds of surveys over decades have been suggesting that “rising to the level of incompetence” is not a problem but an epidemic. What the Mckinsey article finally presented was a systemic failure where “rising to respective levels of incompetence” is a foregone inevitability.
It is this inevitability that is hindering the path of sustainability in a big way. In the last five years since Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009, reports are pouring in about the need for billions if not trillions of dollars for immediate shift to clean and sustainable economy.
Many suggest that this data projection is a sophisticated and oblique way of creating a scare among those policy makers favourably inclined towards green shift. The idea is to demoralise governments and businesses by attaching a fantastical cost to the proposed transition.
But the sustainability oriented economists say that far reaching substantial changes can be achieved at a fraction of a cost proposed by those who are opposing the transition.
They suggest the most potent way of achieving this is by unlocking the creativity at the bottom of the pyramid in any organisation, something which is being systematically destroyed or underemployed these days across the organisations.
These economists and social scientists insist that while the governments will create a favourable atmosphere for sustainable business to grow, it is the incremental individual creativity in the work place that when replicated in ever larger spheres of influence would achieve the critical mass for the society and business to tilt in favour of green economy.
I remember sometimes ago in a service sector organisation a new sustainability enthusiast took over at the helm of the company. He asked his middle managerial ranks to list ways and means to bring down the cost of production, reduce waste, increase resource efficiency and other such topics. The managers went back and issued emails to their workers on the ground to come up with ideas on required themes. Each worker had to report or submit the ideas to the line manager and it would then be sent to the department manager and the best ideas would then be presented to the boss.
However, after three such attempts, with last one issued like a veiled threat, nothing came up. Not to be deterred by the experience, the new CEO hired an outside consultant. He knew something was amiss. People at the bottom weren’t opening up. After three weeks the consultant came to his room and gave him a feedback which confirmed his worst fears.
There was intense resentment against middle management. As these line managers had deliberately killed good ideas over a period of time, no one was ready to part with their intellectual input. Second biggest grouse was that if and when an idea was accepted the beneficiary was always the manager who had usurped someone else’s idea. The person who presented the idea was pushed in the oblivion and the manager got all the kudos and promotions and a trip to foreign land — all expenses paid.
The CEO asked the consultant for a way around his own bureaucracy. The consultant suggested that a micro site is created on the company’s intranet with all the themes outlined in it as suggested by the CEO. Ideas were to be invited from anyone and everyone. The consultant also recommended a clutch of prizes.
As each individual would use his or her own company id to log into the site and fill the form with their names and designations along with the department they worked in, it would be a transparent document clearly showing who proposed the idea. The site specifically said that the CEO had promised that the proposer of the idea would be accepted as the sole proprietor of the intellectual property he or she has created.
The result was astounding. In 48 hours the site was glut with ideas. This time CEO sat with the consultant and together they organised those ideas, chose winners and declared the winners on the floor of the plant in a big celebration.
The ideas were put into practice within a fortnight in a phased manner and the winners were given a choice to utilise their coupons over a period of one year whenever they deemed fit. They were also given the preference to swap their prizes with other things of equal value if they wanted.
The CEO later told me that the cost of hiring the consultant, organising a prize distribution event and distributing prizes that ranged from a smart phone to a family holiday was recovered within the first quarter of employing the ideas produced by the collective wisdom of the workers at the bottom of the heap or who were working at the grassroots level.
Another fringe benefit was increased loyalty to the organisation. The fact that their ideas were well received, accepted and honoured made the worker feel important, accepted and cherished. The attrition rate in an industry notorious for it came down drastically.
Every company similarly sits on a goldmine of accumulated wisdom. This wisdom is the key source of low cost, high yield sustainable growth and business. The day a company learns to tap into its own goldmine, it would have taken the most important step on the thousand mile path of sustainability.
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