My Provocation, and Others

I’ve spent the last two days at the Management Lab‘s conference on "Inventing the Future of Management," at which Gary Hamel has done an amazing job of framing issues and herding a large number of cats. He and his colleagues had the clever idea to ask each of us attendees, when introducing ourselves, to toss out a ‘provocation’ related to our work.

I outsourced the phrasing of my provocation to F. Scott Fitzgerald. I googled a few words from a quote I vaguely remembered and found that it came from a confessional about his own depletion. The 1945 book The Crack-Up contained one of his most famous aphorisms:

   "The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

When it was my turn I read the above sentence, which I love not because I’m convinced that it’s generally true, but because it perfectly captures a business leader’s two roles with respect to information technology (at least as I see them). I explained to my colleagues my view that the newly-available toolkit of corporate IT gives managers two diametrically opposed abilities. 

The first is an ability to impose new work structures — business processes, work flows, interdependencies, decision right allocations, data formats, operating models, etc. —  on their organizations, and to have great confidence that these work structures will be followed with great fidelity, both across locations and over time. 

The second thing IT does is give business leaders the ability to let new work structures emerge without forcing them. Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 technologies are wonderful new tools for letting processes, interdependencies, decision right regimes, operating models, etc. appear over time without central direction, and without much (if any) up-front guessing about how these structures will or should look.

What I was trying to have Fitzgerald help me say was that leaders need to become accustomed to the double-edged sword that is today’s IT. Technology can be used to strike two very different kinds of blow within and across organizations, and to strike them simultaneously. I believe that the companies and managers that accept this duality, and so pass Fitzgerald’s test when applied to IT, are going to stand out over time. Do you agree?

I also want to jot down a few of provocations that other attendees tossed out, just because I got a kick out of a lot of them. Here’s a partial list, arranged in no order and doubtless full of transcription errors:

Tim Brown, IDEO: Creative people aren’t interested in management.
Hal Varian, Google: ‘Statistician’ is the sexy job of the 21st century.
Henry Mitzberg, McGill: We are not living in time of great change. Companies will not save the world.
Eric Abrahamson, Columbia:  Organizations are over-organized.
Yves Doz, INSEAD: The danger is to think that what’s new is exciting and good, while what’s old is bad and tired.
Keith Sawyer, Washington University: People are deeply uncomfortable with uncertainty.
James Surowiecki, The New Yorker: The centralization of decision-making is a conceptual error. Individuals are not better than the collective. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford: The language of economics is toxic to the practice of management.
Kevin Kelly, Wired: Productivity is for machines. If you can measure it, robots should do it. 

I’ll be posting more about the conference…