Managerial Control & Culture: Top-Down Pressure for Productivity


In a recent Wall Street Journal article (July 20, 2014), it was revealed that a US attorney in California is investigating allegations that workers at Progress Rail, a subsidiary of Caterpillar, cheated railroad companies by engaging in fraudulent repairs. The alleged purpose of such unnecessary “green repairs” was to boost revenue that Progress Rail charged the railroads. [Boosting repair revenue charged to railroad companies has the impact of increasing the operating costs of the railroads which, in turn, has an upward pressure on prices that the railroads charge companies that depend on them to transport goods across the country. This can mean higher prices charged to consumers.]

Progress Rail contracts with railroad companies to inspect railroad cars that are parked at the Los Angeles terminal while the cars are waiting to be loaded with containers arriving on ships from foreign ports. The Los Angeles terminal is just one of several places around the country where rail cars are inspected. Railroad companies would conduct their own repairs except that outsourcing the work to a contract company is less expensive.

When rail cars come into port and wait to be loaded, the “car men,” the workers who are responsible for finding cars that need repairs, scurry about the rail yard as quickly as they can. Their main focus: rail car wheels, and brake systems. In order to manage their risks, railroad companies must have a high degree of reliability and safety for the long journeys.

One person who is familiar with rail car inspection and repair work stated that he is sure that managers at Progress Rail didn’t know anything about the alleged cheating. Workers who spoke with WSJ reporters stated that they were not explicitly instructed to generate revenue by damaging rail cars or removing parts (and in some cases allegedly throwing the parts into the ocean so that they could not be inspected). However, some managers made it clear to car men that if they did not produce enough repair revenue, they would be fired.

Newer workers allege that they learned to cheat from more experienced workers.

Someone close to the industry for several years (but who worked for a different rail car repair company in a different state), stated that the whole industry has improved its standards in recent years. This implies that cheating rail road customers may have been an industry-wide problem.

Discussion Questions
This case can be discussed when covering material on managerial ethics, corporate culture or managerial control. Here are some of the questions that the Christian manager should consider:
• If you were a manager at Progress Rail Services and you knew that you had never asked employees to cheat by damaging rail cars or conduct unnecessary “green repairs,” what would you do if you saw the Wall Street Journal article about your company?
• If the investigation finds that cheating occurred, how is a manager to keep productivity high (to boost repair company profits) without encouraging cheating?
• How could a Christian argue that it is not appropriate for a manager to tell employees that higher productivity is expected?
• Is it appropriate to make workers responsible to produce repair revenue when the need of repair is really outside the control of a worker or manager?
• If managers do not communicate productivity expectations, won’t employees gradually adjust their work habits so that their life at work is increasingly more pleasant and less stressful? If so, doesn’t this mean that over time productivity will decrease?
• How does a top-level manager know when encouragement for higher productivity will trigger unethical behaviour? If you don’t know when this trigger occurs, how does the Christian manager avoid contributing to unethical behaviour of subordinates at the same time as increasing productivity?
• If management did not know anything about cheating, can they be held accountable for cheating? If workers are fearful of losing their jobs because of managerial pressure for higher productivity, is this the responsibility of management or of the subordinates?
• Would a Christian executive ever openly threaten workers that they might be fired if productivity does not increase? Would it be acceptable for a Christian manager to insinuate that workers might be fired if productivity does not increase?
• If you were a manager in an industry where you knew cheating was going on by many companies, how would you bring your Christian faith to your work to counteract this? Under what circumstances is it appropriate for the person of religious faith to “resist the Devil” at the level of industry-wide practice? Or is an industry-wide practice something that the Christian should simply “don’t ask and don’t tell?”
• How might the railroad change the structure of its out-source agreement with Progress Rail to avoid unnecessary “green repairs” at the same time as insuring safety and reliability of its equipment for cross-country journeys?


Transformational Teaching


Like most of you, for the last decade I have been on a continual journey trying to find out the best approaches to teaching management topics. With everything else I have going on, the process has been slow to say the least. When I started teaching, I read Ken Bain’s book What the Best College Teachers Do (Bain, 2004). If you haven’t read that book yet, read it today. There are other good books that were available at that time such as Teaching at its Best (Nilson, 2003). Since then several other resources have come out that teach teachers how to engage students in active learning.

Last week I found a new resource while attending a conference for Christian professors. One of the presenters (not a business professor) shared with us an article which is worthy of consideration here. I highly recommend that you get the article from your library and read it a couple of times. Peruse the packed reference list. The reference list contains information to further explore some of the teaching methods only briefly described in the article. I obtained an electronic copy via Education Research Complete (EBSCO). You might be able to download a copy directly from the Springer publications website.

The authors (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012) review a variety of approaches to classroom instruction that have been used over the past 50 years. They attempt to identify the underlying characteristics of transformational teaching, teaching that “involves creating dynamic relationships between teachers, students and a shared body of knowledge to promote student learning and personal growth.” (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p. 569) The define transformational teaching, patterned after the transformational leadership concept, as: the expressed or unexpressed goal to increase students’ mastery of key course concepts while transforming their learning-related attitudes, values, beliefs, and skills.” (p. 576)

Transformational teaching is a process that involves “creating dynamic relationships between teachers, students, and a shared body of knowledge in a way that promotes student learning and personal growth. From this perspective, instructors are viewed as intellectual coaches who create teams of students who collaborate with each other and with their teacher to master bodies of information. Instructors assume the traditional role of facilitating students’ acquisition of key course concepts, but they do so while promoting students’ personal development and enhancing their disposition toward learning.” (p. 576) The emphasis is not just on learning new information; it is a focus on changed student lives.

If you don’t have the time to read the whole article, study Table 1. After seeing that, you may want to take the 15 to 20 minutes to go ahead and read the article!

Here are some of the ideas from Slavich and Zimbardo suggest are characteristic of transformational teaching.

1. Facilitate acquisition and mastery of key course concepts.
a. Give students some assignments that may be completed at their own pace. [Most of us have done this, I dare say.]
b. Adapt assignments to match students’ stated interests (giving students some choices!) [I have tried this over the years by giving students choices on major assignments.]
c. Selecting lectures based on student interests or priorities [I’ve tried this successfully and can vouch for its impact.]
d. Give opportunities outside the classroom for self-directed and self-paced learning.
e. “Increase the amount of class time that is devoted to exploring and challenging students’ questions, views, and perspectives.” (p. 581)
f. Debate viewpoints [I use this in Principles of Management, Organizational Behavior and other courses and can vouch that it stimulates active learning. My textbook (Cafferky, 2012) is designed to foster this by providing end-of-chapter material for in-class debate.]
g. Analyze and react to stories and videos. [Narrative has a powerful impact on our lives. A good narrative is almost impossible to ignore. In the course that I have developed the most I begin almost every class period with a story.]
h. Shaping course content based on student input, interest and need.

2. Enhance strategies and skills for learning and discovery.
a. Regard the classroom as a “learning lab,” i.e., learning by doing with others (collaborative interdependence).
b. At the beginning of the semester, establish a shared vision for the course. [this section of the paper is vital!]
c. Start sharing responsibility with students for promoting personal growth where students “support, encourage and teach one another” (p. 583).
d. Set up individualized learning goals for each person.

3. Promote positive learning-related attitudes, values and beliefs [You must read this section of the paper!]
a. Engage students with questions and problems in a way “that challenges prevailing views on a topic.” (p. 584) [This assumes that as an instructor you know the prevailing views of students at the time they enter your course. If you don’t know what students think, it’s time to find out!]
b. Discuss and debate ideas. [Yes, there is the debate method again! I have to tell you that, this idea of bringing in debatable issues or statements has added new life to my teaching.]
c. Cultivate expectations and skills necessary to meet the goals.

4. Model how to approach learning. Examples include:
a. Review a research paper in class by describing the scientific method used, the statistical modelling (if quantitative). Follow on by asking students to review a research paper.
b. Challenge common assumptions that students have. [If you don’t know student assumptions, you have to find out!]
c. Encourage students to think independently.
d. View problems from different perspectives. This can be a structured, formal approach where two or more perspectives are brought into the discussion by design or an informal approach.
e. Model attitudes, values and beliefs while exploring solutions to problems.
f. Show that challenging situations are opportunities to explore and learn, not barriers to success.
g. Create study groups for students to confront problems together.
h. Show how thinking, problem solving and skill development can be improved.
i. Give students relevant information about their capabilities.

5. Be intellectually challenging but also encouraging to students to “set high but attainable goals.” (p. 584)
a. Frame questions in terms of students’ current level of understanding. [If you don’t know students current level of understanding, take some time at the beginning of every semester to find out.]
b. Pose questions and problems that, over time, are incrementally more difficult.
c. Provide emotional and instrumental support during the process.
d. Give inspiring appeals to students to “transcend self-interested goals.” (p. 590)

6. Create experiential lessons. [I can vouch for the power of this one!]
a. See the reference list that represents hundreds of experiential lesson activities.
b. Introduce an experiential activity in the classroom but design it to be taken outside the classroom. [One of the activities, described in my textbook (Cafferky, 2012, p. 345), that I find students enjoy is the smiling exercise. Students report how much they learned from this social experiment!]

7. Promoting preflection and reflection. Preflection involves students critically analyzing their assumptions before engaging in a learning activity. Reflection involves journaling or conversations where students reflect after a learning experience. [I have found these to be especially useful, but I need to experiment more with these.]
a. Preflection: Students can write a preflection letter discussing their thoughts and feelings, assumptions, plans, strategies or perspectives as they start a learning activity. Or, students can participate in a preflection discussion where thoughts, feelings, assumptions, etc. are placed into consideration in a social context.
b. Reflection: Students write journal entries or short reaction papers to stories, videos or articles. Students can pair up for a dyad conversation about their experiences. Form a microlab where students form up with two or three other students to consider the question inspired by the lecture, article, video, story or discussion. Foster a structured debate in which different perspectives are explicitly taken.

Like you, I have tried some of these. But this article stimulated my desire to experiment with more of these ideas and to innovate, innovate, innovate!

Bain, Ken (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cafferky, Michael E. (2012). Management: A faith-based perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Nilson, Linda Burzotta (2003). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company.

Slavich, George M. & Zimbardo, Philip G. (2012). Transformational teaching: Theoretical underpinnings, basic principles, and core methods. Educational Psychology Review 24(4):569-608.

Organizing Society


Here is a classroom activity to use when you are teaching the chapter on organization and at the same time encourage students to think deeply about the choices that the “founding fathers” of the United States made when establishing the US Constitution. (Cafferky, 2012, pp. 244-281) Indirectly, this activity will illustrate the complex nature of organizing when applied at a large scale.

Introduce the activity and discussion by reviewing the fundamental, paradoxical tension in all of organizing, i.e., Differentiation and Integration. For every organized social group we divide the tasks or functions (horizontal differentiation). We also divide decision making authority (vertical differentiation). But we also must find a way to integrated the divided work so that the group’s goals can be achieved. These two organizing activities are inverse. Each has the potential of undermining the other when taken to an extreme. Additionally, we must find a way to manage the tradeoffs that are inherent in the structural choices that we make. Thus, organizing, one could argue, is about managing the structural choices that are made by maximizing the advantages of each organizational choice while minimizing the disadvantages of each choice and making adjustments when it seems appropriate for accomplishing our goals.

Students may think that organizing applies just to work units, business organizations, nonprofit organizations or government organizations. But what about the external environment? It is organized, too! Markets are organized. Industries are organized. The fundamental tension in all of organizing also applies at the larger society level, i.e., how society as a whole divides up the major categories of societal functions and authority and then how society integrates these diverse functions and levels of authority into an integrated whole so that our commonly-shared goals can be achieved.

To illustrate this and have students wrestle with the tradeoffs inherent in structural choices, divide the class into three groups (for a large class, sets of three groups). Assign one of the three following society Models to each group. Each group is given 3 minutes to develop a persuasive presentation arguing that their societal structure is best. Groups take turns presenting their persuasive arguments in 60 seconds or less. After each presentation, the other groups are given one minute each to point out the disadvantages of their assigned structure.

The following Models can be described:

Model 1. In so-called “traditional” societies, the political, economic and cultural (which usually meant religious) systems are not highly differentiated to the degree that we see in other societies. Instead, these three “sectors” of society are part of a single system (more or less). Political (government) leaders were sometimes also the leaders of commerce who were also the cultural leaders. Political institutions are also in control of commerce and of cultural expressions (such as religion). For this Model, draw a large rectangle and inside the space write the three words: Political, Economic, Cultural.

Model 2. In the free-market capitalist economy, such as we find in the constitutional democracy of the United States, the political, economic and cultural sectors of society are differentiated from one another but also are interrelated. Political leaders have a specialized function that is different from that of the business leaders. Cultural (e.g., nonprofit) organizations have taken on specialized functions which are different from, but sometimes overlap with the other two sectors. For this Model, draw a large rectangle and inside the space write the three words: Political, Economic, Cultural. Then separate each word from the other two with a dotted line.

Model 3. In a socialist “planned-economy” or state-capitalist society the political and economic systems work essentially as one (with some exceptions) and this political-economic system is somewhat differentiated from the cultural system(s) of society. In current socialist societies, these boundaries may not be exactly as portrayed here. In some socialist societies a hybrid form of free-market exists alongside a portion of the economy that is controlled by the government (political) sector of society. For this Model, draw a large rectangle and inside the space write the three words: Political, Economic, Cultural. Then separate Political and Economic from Cultural with a dotted line.

The graphic illustration of each Model will not perfectly represent a far more complicated reality. Instructors and students alike will be able to point out elements that need to be adjusted depending on the particular society that might be in view. Each Model is designed to illustrate some of the differences in structure.

Discussion Questions
Consider each of the three general ways that society has been structured (yes, there are variations). For each society structure considered:
• How is integration achieved across the boundaries of the three sectors of society in each of the three models?
• What mechanisms are in place to manage the ethical standards of each sector of society (political, economic, cultural)?
• What tradeoffs exist with each of the choices that society makes for how to divide up the responsibility for politics, commerce and culture? In other words, what benefits and problems might the Traditional society experience that is not experienced by the other two types of society? For the free-market capitalist society, what benefits and problems tend to be experienced that the other two do not experience?
• What are some of the goals that we have for ourselves in society? For each model of societal structure, what societal goal(s) will be most likely achieved? Which goals will be more difficult to achieve?
• Can you give an example of each of these three society “structures” that exist today?
• Which type of society structure best describes that which is portrayed in the Bible?
• Which society structure is best? Why?
• Will it matter to a Christian manager which type of society structure he or she is working in? How?
• Mary, a Christian manager, works in the free-market capitalist society. Boris, a Christian manager, works in state-capitalist society. Will the dynamics of each society’s structure affect Mary and Boris differently? If so, how?
• In what way might it be said that the world is a field of competition for supremacy among three types of societal structures?
• In terms of the fundamental separation of the three sectors of society, evaluate the validity of the following statement by Winston Churchill: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.”
• Is there a convergence of thought taking place worldwide as societies watch each other and, as a result, attempt to get the advantages of each other’s societal structures? If so, what will the future societal structures likely look like in the following countries
o United States?
o China?

It’s Either Him or Us – Target Executive Revolt


In the June 24, 2014 Wall Street Journal article “Off Target: Aids Rebelled After CEO Tweaked ‘Tar’zhay’ Formula”Paul Ziobro and Serena Ng tell a story of the dramatic executive revolt that occurred at Target in early May of this year.


When Greg Steinhafel’s retirement was announced in May, 2014 the action was positioned as a response to the data hacking scandal which had damaged the retailer’s reputation five months earlier. Apparently there was more to the story. Just a few weeks after his resignation, the “rest of the story” got out.


In 2011 Target took over its website operations from Amazon. Soon thereafter the website crashed leaving shoppers angry. Many of these avoided going to Target stores. In 2011 an exodus began among higher level managers. The chief marketing officer resigned to work for J. C. Penney. The CFO announced his retirement. Leaders from merchandising, store operations and other departments resigned to work elsewhere. In early December,2013 forty million of credit card holders and 70 million shoppers had their private information compromised in the aforementioned data hacking. Apparently, there were other problems that Target leaders were experiencing that the public didn’t know about. How did Target get here from there?


Robert Ulrich, the 20-year CEO, retired from Target in 2008. It took just 6 years for the culture of “fast, fun and friendly”, retail risk-taking and decentralized decision making by division leaders to be replaced by a more metric-driven, profit-oriented, bureaucratic red-tape culture where large teams participated in decision making. Ironically, as Steinhafel and his top-level leaders tried to institutionalize the “fast, fun and friendly” atmosphere, it apparently back-fired. During annual performance reviews, the fastness, funness and friendliness of employees was evaluated.


When Greg Steinhafel took over as CEO in 2008, certain company values became comparatively more prominent. Steinhafel had been a 35 year veteran of the retailer. Rigid performance metrics created bureaucracy (e.g., committee meetings where new ideas were “vetted” for their potential for contribution to profits, decision making related to testing new ideas such as using mannequins to display fashions took a long time). This hampered the former freedom of managers to make a wide range of decisions including products and retail marketing ideas. Fewer risks were taken to introduce new products. Purchasing agents put increasing pressure on vendors for better prices (mimicking WalMart fame?). Priority shelf space was apparently given to vendors who the best price vendors.


The worldwide search for new products in the 1990s turned out to be an expensive, though effective, commitment when economic times turned down for retailers. The tactic of letting customers order online and pick up at the store (successfully used by retail drug stores), took years of internal wrangling among bureaucrats.


One of the first blunders may have been Steinhafel’s decision to increase the emphasis on lower-profit food. This took shelf space and attention away from the higher profit fashions and house wares. Another issue that got mired in the bureaucratic approach was the issue of product pricing. The question was whether Target would match lower prices from its online competitors.  That decision took months of intense debate.


Ulrich tended to keep retired executives as informal advisors. Steinhafel, had little contact with Ulrich after he took over as CEO.


Among other leadership issues experienced in Target between 2008-2014, the question of managerial controls looms large. In Chapter 14 of the book Management: A Faith-based Perspective (Cafferky, 2012) it states that managerial controls are not always easily administered. Control metrics communicate to employees the values that are expected. Too few metrics will oversimplify and drive employees to “work the system” in order to earn performance bonuses. Too many metrics can tend to confuse employees regarding what values take higher priority when “push comes to shove.” The chapter also presents the flexibility-control paradox. Seemingly opposites, flexibility and control are interlinked and interdependent. “If controls are followed too rigidly, then control destroys flexibility. If the drive for flexibility is followed to diligently, then controls are undermined and rendered useless.” (p. 475) Apparently leaders at Target found themselves caught in the middle of this unavoidable paradox without any other way out except the resignations of key people.


Discussion Questions

Consider asking students to read the Wall Street Journal articles from May 6, 2014 (“Target Chief, Unable to Halt Wave of Woe, Stands Aside”) and June 24, 2014 (“Off Target: Aids Rebelled After CEO Tweaked ‘Tar’zhay’ Formula”) that discuss the resignation of Greg Steinhafel. The following questions have potential for engaging students in active learning on a number of topics including leadership, motivation of employees, organizational structure, managerial controls and others:

  • What do you think was the core issue at stake that lead to the “executive revolt?”
  • How much responsibility should the corporate vice presidents take for the changes in corporate culture that took place under Steinhafel’s leadership?
  • Under what conditions, if ever, would a Christian top-level leader lead or even participate in an “executive revolt?”
  • Is it really fair for high-ranking leaders to “revolt” if they share responsibility for corporate culture and corporate performance?
  • Instead of delivering to the Board of Directors an ultimatum, why couldn’t the top-level executives simply have given their subordinate managers more freedom?
  • Why does sometimes take several years for a company culture to change to the point where there are problems?
  • Do you think some of the problems were already present in Target and that the departure of Robert Ulrich simply allowed for the revealing of the true nature of the culture?
  • Assuming that profit was important to the previous CEO, how did he manage the drive for profit at the same time as fostering innovation and risk-taking?
  • Should we put the blame for the change in corporate culture on the external economy that had taken a steep dive in 2008 the same year that Steinhafel was appointed Ulrich’s successor?
  • Isn’t it possible that Ulrich new changes would come to Target’s corporate culture when the economy hit the skids in 2008? Could this be one of the reasons he resigned?
  • To what degree was the economic down-turn responsible for top-level leaders focusing more on profits and performance metrics?
  • Someone once said, “You manage what you measure.” How are managers expected to preserve the values of risk-taking and innovation when the metrics emphasize risk-avoidance and the bottom line of profit?
  • See if you can find an explanation for how the decision to emphasize food over fashion and house wares after 2008. Who brought the proposal to whom? What role did the corporate vice presidents (the same ones who revolted) have in this decision?
  • Many companies emphasize the importance of teams. Apparently Target made use of teams in ways that fuelled bureaucratic sludge. What is the alternative to teams to get employees involved in decision making that does not get mired in red-tape?
  • Within days of Mr. Steinhafel’s resignation, decision making sped up as top-level leaders started giving subordinates more freedom to make decisions. Will this change be enough to recover Target’s successful culture that eroded during the previous six years? What tradeoff might result?
  • Other than resignations of key people including Greg Steinhafel, what might have been done to turn the company culture around and avoid the problems that lead to the drama?

The “Uber” Rate of Change in Business


The article in Fast Company (June, 2014, p. 50) “Uber is the new Google,” and the article in the Wall Street Journal (June 10) “Taxi drivers plan big protests in Europe against Uber,” and related stories in other publications are worth considering with your students as you discuss the impact of the larger environment on managers in one industry that is brought about by managers in a different industry.


Technologies of broadband, telecommunication apps and computing power means that increasingly more data can be gathered and “crunched” to solve real-time problems such as getting a taxi quicker to pick you up from the curb side and take you across town faster so that you can have that important face-to-face meeting faster so that you can have other meetings faster to get deals done quicker, engage customers and suppliers even quicker.


In the Fast Company article author Om Malik shows the love-hate relationship we have with the pace of change. The Uber taxi-booking smart phone app lets potential “fares” (customers) track taxis and book them quickly. The app can also measure the distance from where it picks you up to your destination and calculate the taxi fare for the customer before they step in the vehicle and engage the driver.


The Uber application of technology appears to be upsetting the taxi business in European cities. To use a British idiom, with the Uber app, getting a taxi is “easy peasy.” Or is it? In London, users of the Uber app increased 850% in one week. Taxi riders love it. Angry cab drivers hate it. They organized to stage a slow-down street protest in and around Trafalgar Square. Similar taxi driver protests have occurred in other European cities.


Taxi services tend to be heavily regulated. The street protests over the app have been welcomed by company managers who like the additional attention brought to their product. Taxi drivers are upset that they are heavily burdened by regulations and, as a result, are hampered to deal with the competition. Drivers also contend that the app is essentially a taxi meter in the hands of potential customers, technology that should be reserved for taxi cab companies. Furthermore, taxi drivers who pick up customers using Uber allegedly were not following the rules of competition agreed to by taxi companies and regulators.


Discussion Questions

Assign students to read articles regarding the Uber taxi-booking app, the legal actions in the courts over this product and the reasons for taxi driver protests that have resulted.


  • What is the core issue at stake that is the main reason why taxi drivers protest the Uber app? Are their concerns legitimate or simply and quite narrowly self-serving?
  • What position should the Christian take on this issue? Should Christians develop a new product knowing that the product will potentially be disruptive to companies in other industries?
  • When some managers (including corporate intrepreneurs and independent entrepreneurs) create changes that result in disruptions to usual business practices, why are their organizations (and sometimes, business in general) vehemently excoriated in the media or during informal conversations?
  • Is it unethical for users of the Uber app to cherry pick the best-priced taxi ride using this technology?
  • Even if the British courts rule that the Uber app is legal, is it ethical to give customers that amount of knowledge and control in their taxi purchases?
  • Why does each generation perceive that business is changing faster for it than it changed for previous generations? Is the rapid pace of change objectively true for each generation or only a perception?
  • For which kind of manager is the high rate of change the most irksome? Is it the managers who are playing catch-up or the managers who are out front leading innovation?
  • Companies that change rapidly place extra burdens on employees who must learn new technologies, new procedures and new ways of relating to each other. How do managers know when they are requiring too many changes of their employees?
  • What are the indicators to a manager that employees are rebelling at changes forced upon them?
  • As a society have we reached the limits of how much change we can effectively cop with?
  • How much change does God expect of the marketplace? To what degree does God expect Christian managers to lead change?
  • What are two of the most important changes that should be made in today’s marketplace that will bring businesses into closer alignment with God’s will?
  • What kinds of leaders are needed to lead these changes?



The rate of change in business is faster than… well, put in your favorite cliché here: At full throttle? Quick as a wink? As fast as greased lightening?  But apparently for the previous three generations (or more), the perception about the rate of change in business was about the same for them as it is for us.


Two examples will suffice.


Lyndall Urwick, who predated Peter Drucker as one of the nationally-known gurus of management, said in 1955 that “…we have evolved in something less than two centuries from an established society in which we always had ample time in which to absorb the strains and stresses of change, into an adaptive society, one in which the speed of technical change has been enormously accelerated. This demands of all of us a social resilience – a capacity to meet changes in our technical environment which in themselves enforce changes in our social customs, our ways of living and working together, to a degree never before experienced in man’s recorded history.” Urwick, L. F. (1955). The Pattern of Management. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. p. 5-6. [Emphasis in original]


Prior to Urwick’s observation is that of the famed Cambridge University economist Alfred Marshall whose book on economics was the standard university textbook for decades. When comparing the business practices of his day with those in previous time periods Marshall had this to say:  “…the methods of industry which were then stereotyped, now change with bewildering quickness; the social relations of classes, and the position of the individual in his class, which were then definitely fixed by traditional rules, are now perfectly variable and change their forms with the changing circumstances of the day.”  Marshall, A. (1949). Principles of economics. (8th ed.). New York: The Macmillan Company, p. 245-246. [Emphasis added.]


Race forward to the 21st century: Companies like Google and the younger Uber have taken the rate of change to a whole new, almost unbelievable, if not downright disturbing, pace. And we love it… and hate it.


Collectively, managers are caught in a tension. We want the pace of change to decline for some things and at the same time we want it to increase for other things. Some managers are out front leading. For the innovators, they can’t get their innovations to market fast enough because the competitors (or fear about potential competitors) are either ahead of them or expected soon to get ahead. Many others are simply trying to catch up and, understandably, get tired of responding to constant change. Companies that change rapidly place extra burdens on employees who must learn new technologies, new procedures and new ways of relating to each other. At the same time for generations we desperately want change to occur more rapidly than it does. Change moves at a rate… well, put in your own cliché here: slower than dirt? Slower than a herd of snails travelling through peanut butter? Take the recent Veteran’s Administration clinic-scheduling scandal that erupted this year. Changing the organizational systems and organizational culture that allowed the scandal to take root and flourish cannot be accomplished fast enough for veterans and their families who suffer from the lack of timely care.