Friday, 13 September 2013

3 Reasons Why Your Management Team Needs a Philosopher

So, you landed here for one of two reasons: either you are a manager or an executive and you don’t believe me, or perhaps, you are curious, mostly because deep down you, like almost everyone, have no clue what a philosopher does. In any case, you want to know what I’m talking about, so I won’t keep you waiting.

Managers must be good with numbers, they should preferably hold an MBA, and they should be able to encourage subordinates to be productive, right? Wrong, dead wrong. The reason most people believe in this is: either because they have climbed the corporate ladder thinking that way or, like most of us, because they think that organizing a productive team of workers is to an MBA what healing the sick is to a Physician. This reasoning is unfortunately based on the wrong metaphor: businesses today tend to entail complex interactions that are ill suited for technocrats, instead requiring a critical vision and a more creative approach. 

The first insight to keep in mind:

Adam Smith made a nail factory famous by using it as an example of the positive effects of the division of labor: divide a complex process into smaller, technically simple ones, and your productivity will soar. In Smith’s time there were not many factories, not in our sense of the term anyway. Chances were that if you adopted such process you would be able to conquer or at least take over a good share of your market. Today, however, the story is different: everyone knows about the secrets of division of labor, efficiency and cost accounting. This means that no matter how good you get at it, the advantage you get of doing so will be minimal in an established market. The key lies instead in being able to build complex products; to efficiently manage people doing complex not simple tasks—if you find yourself lost at this point, bear with me as I say a few explanatory words. It is precisely the combination of complexity over complexity what is mind-boggling for your traditional MBA graduate, who has been told over and over again that simple is better, period. The truth is that simple is better if and only if your product is as simple as a nail and your competition is not aware that division of labor exists. Given that they most probably are, then you need someone that is able to, literally, build complex offerings (the distinction between products and services has become blurry, which is why I prefer the term offering). You need someone capable of managing a team that can repeatedly deliver complex work.

Here, we arrive to the second thing you must keep in mind:

Organizing teams of people means having to deal with people; not with efficiency, process flows or any of that jargon MBAers love—those same MBAers that at my mention of the word ‘people’ roll their eyes thinking that some touchy-feelly story is coming their way.

Dealing with people is something we all do everyday all the time, so we should all be quite good at it, right? No, wrong again. As with driving a car, we can get pretty good at it, but our proficiency behind the wheel pales in comparison to the one of a formula driver. Our driving expertise consists in simply getting around town without crashing, in being able to Parallel Park, and in having once, when we were 16, showed off our ‘drifting’ skills to our high school friends. Hence, and keeping with the analogy, when it comes to dealing with people, a philosopher would be the formula driver and an MBA graduate would be the grumpy old man slowly driving on the express lane, and who, visibly annoyed, signals others to go around him. The point is that in business, just as in the highway, we do want to go faster. Or would you rather stay behind the old man, who would insist his driving is safer?  

If you want to spot the grumpy old man within your ranks, just ask your manager of choice a question of this sort next time a mild conflict among coworkers emerges: Why did X and Y clash over such a menial assignment last week? Or, why did X blow out irrationally in front of everyone this morning? Or, how can the people in Y’s team lack motivation and yet continue coming to work? If any of the answers you get explains their behavior in terms of personal character, personal issues, stress, or on it being a one time event, then you can be sure you have a grumpy old man in your hands.

You see, here is where the difference appears. A philosopher doesn't reduce human interactions to personal and professional attitudes and there is a simple reason for that: such view is entirely outdated and unscientific—the psychology of a person matters, naturally, but someone’s psychological make-up is neither stringent nor the natural cause of behavior. The key to a philosopher’s advantage lies in her ability to gain and maintain more than one perspective at the same time. Instead of seeing conflict as the necessary result of emotions or genetics, the philosopher sees it as the result of different but equally valid rationalities. Sounds complicated? It should, and as with any form of mastery it takes years of training to get there. Yet being able to understand conflict, as the expression of various points of view, is the easy part. It is being able to negotiate between them what really counts. A philosopher will do both and the result will be….alas! Greater motivation and increased productivity.

Lastly, the last reason why your company needs a philosopher is vision:

All companies have a vision, although usually nothing beyond a webpage tab dedicated to outlining some ambiguous future, where innovation is very important and they are the leaders of something. This sounds as a nice message and it may play well with an emotional approach to identity and brand cration, but it is not really a vision. It is not a vision if it does not outline concrete and attainable goals. Even if hypothetical scenarios need to be created, being able to imagine, to see the future as a concrete event, is essential to actually arriving at that future. Philosophers are trained to deal with hypothetical scenarios all the time; they are trained to create thought experiments and derive practical outcomes from them. The skill needed to see past-present-future as a continuum lies at the core of philosophical thought and it is not a matter of numbers. Economic or financial forecasts, as any honest economist will tell you, are grossly dependant on suppositions: suppositions about the market, about the demand for an offering, the behavior of your competitors, about aspects, such as technological innovations, prices, and the list could go on and on, for way too long. 

Forecasts deliver nice pictures indeed, but they are not visions, they are wishful thinking in the best of cases. Most strikingly, putting too much faith in them ends up transforming them into self-fulfilling prophecies—when they are negative—and in terrible miscalculations and unnecessary restructuring, when they are good (and we all have seen this!). The philosopher’s vision is, on the contrary, the construction of a future, yes, but more importantly, it is the construction of a pathway leading towards that future: the philosopher will tell you what has to change in the company for that future to come about.

So, next time you see the HR Manager preselecting the MBA’s…make yourself useful, and throw them to the bin once she is done.

Written by Daniel Vargas Gómez

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