I distinctly remember the moment I went from being generally frustrated by the discipline of organizational sciences to being utterly fascinated. My focus in education and the early phase of my career had been solidly on understanding and developing complex technical systems. I had just completed an MBA, which I had pursued in order to improve my effectiveness leading technical engineering teams. I concluded in hindsight that (while marketing, finance, accounting, et al had added to my preparedness as an aspiring leader in other ways) the MBA had contributed very little or perhaps nothing in advancing towards that goal. So, I was basically where I started, reporting to work each day to lead a team of rocket scientists with a nagging feeling that, even though the team was very productive, that there were still higher levels of performance (perhaps transformatively higher) above us that we somehow could not reach.
There was a manager at my work that performed very well leading people and groups and I found out he had a PhD in the subject of Systems Engineering with an emphasis on Engineering Management (EM). I was ambivalent. I remembered walking out of my final undergraduate exam optimistically thinking that was the last academic exam I would ever take. A well-meaning and particularly dogged manager changed my mind so I pressed on into grad study in Computer Science and then towards an MBA. This time I triple-pinky swore with myself that surely I was done with school this time. But I had a nagging curiosity I could not shake. I had to know what set this high performing manager apart in leading people and teams and whether I could get there or not. Like Matt Damon’s character in Rounders, I had to know what made others great and to see if I could sit at that table. So, I decided I was just interested enough in the EM topic to take the first two classes as a non-degree student. Just visit. Lurk as a digital only student. Before the first class, I purchased the required reading materials for those classes.
Being highly impatient, I glanced at all 4 titles and picked the one whose subtitle seemed somehow uniquely focused on my goal of improved leadership of technical teams – The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, by Peter Senge (Amazon affiliate link here). I made it less than 2 pages before the ideas in that book burst in and altered my career interests forever. As it happens, although Senge wrote in a seemingly prescient way about systems-driven patterns within organizations, what captured my attention was not written by Senge. It was written by Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who I knew previously from Quality and Systems Engineering classes as a legendary innovator of process improvement. He wrote:
‘Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers — a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars — and on up through the university. On the job, people, teams, divisions, are ranked — reward for the one at the top, punishment for the one at the bottom. … Instead, the job of management … should be the optimization of a system.’ – Dr. W. Edwards Deming (1990)
Some people talk a whole lot and don’t say much. A select few others say a whole, whole lot in just a few words. Deming packed so much into that brief paragraph that it blew my mind completely. In very few words, he somehow implied a worldview I did not yet hold but somehow already identified with and yearned to seek. We saw in the previous post that defining exactly what management is and involves is not as straightforward as one might wish. However, Deming showed that defining the purpose or objective of management need not be quite so difficult.
The conclusion that the job of management should be optimization of the system under management and that progress towards this goal depends on exploration of a set of systemic relationships – systems thinking and organizational performance and communications systems and the organizational community and individual personal mastery and cognitive biases and decision theory and further topics beyond – was transformative for me. But, while Deming provides the gift of a hopeful vision, those words also carry a daunting element. They were written in 1990 – over 25 years ago. Today, very few organizations have realized the promise of optimized systems envisioned by Deming, and in my view most seem to be moving further away from, rather than closing in on, the goal. This blog is dedicated to renewed exploration of those relationships in pursuit of the optimized organizational system with an emphasis on practical, real-world application. – Eric