Two World Views Collide

  • February 20, 2012
  • Scott

Connie Moore’s recent blog post on “Big Process” advocates for process improvement being top-down in the organization:

Big process is when senior-most business and technology leaders embrace business process change by shifting the organization’s focus from isolated BPM and process improvement projects to a sustainable, enterprise-wide business process transformation program that is then supported and driven by top executives.

Connie goes on to say:

Moving to “big process thinking” is a tall order. I don’t see how this can be done using a bottom-up approach; it must be envisioned, supported, and driven by very senior executives and then radiate out through change agents up, down, and across the entire organization. Obviously, change management is hugely important; but the companies that have embraced big process thinking in the C suite (Medco comes to mind) have achieved amazing results.

The takeaway seems to be that Big Process is a good thing, and it is something that has to be driven from the C-suite.  But this conclusion and prescription seems to run counter to a number of other trends in IT and in business – as Theo Priestley responds in his own blog:

BPM should be driven by everyone, because everyone participates in the process (least of all the Exec….so really should they have ultimate control ?) If you quote strategic intent as a defence then shame on you because strategy is not just reserved for the Big Man either.

It really is a conflict of culture, in a sense. Theo’s coming from the perspective of social media, empowering the average person in a business.  Demanding of them that they step up, in a sense, and that executives give them room to operate.  Connie’s world is one of C-level executives looking for their next strategic moves, where strategy comes from the top and empowerment is in conflict with governance.

Meanwhile, in startup-land, there’s a similar set of contradictions going on.  The public perception of companies like Apple (Inside Apple is an excellent read on the subject), Zynga, and Facebook is one of command-and-control – and great success.  Decisions are made by central authority and everyone else executes on those decisions.  And some of these companies are wildly successful.  Quite a few less-successful companies also employ this kind of top-down approach.  However, as an outsider I don’t claim to know how they’re truly run on the inside – just commenting on public perception.

On the other side of the ledger are the many startups who don’t subscribe to command-and-control.  Joel Spolsky wrote a really compelling guest post to Fred Wilson’s blog – “The Management Team” – in which he argues that we would be better off if we think of the org chart “upside down” – with “management” relabeled “Administration” to  better reflect their role. As he points out, the command-and-control approach  works really well for a 3 person company.  But gradually, you’ll notice that it doesn’t scale, as you grow your firm:

Turns out, it’s positively de-motivating to work for a company where your job is just to shut up and take orders. In tech startup land, we all understand instinctively that we have to hire super smart people, but we forget that we then have to organize the workforce so that those people can use their brains 24/7.

Thus, the upside-down pyramid. Stop thinking of the management team at the top of the organization. Start thinking of the software developers, the designers, the product managers, and the front line sales people as the top of the organization.

Joel's rendition of the upside down pyramid

It’s really a persuasive argument to help your firm avoid thinking that all the value is created by “management” – when all the hard knowledge work in modern organizations is being down by the developers, designers, product managers, and sales people. Joel redefines the management team – rather than defining them as decision making team, they’re the “support function” of the company.

Lest you think you’d be better off running things like Steve Jobs, Joel has advice for you:

And yes, you’re right, Steve Jobs didn’t manage this way. He was a dictatorial, autocratic asshole who ruled by fiat and fear. Maybe he made great products this way. But you? You are not Steve Jobs. You are not better at design than everyone in your company. You are not better at programming than every engineer in your company. You are not better at sales than every salesperson in the company.

Regardless of where your natural inclination lies, it is hard to ignore the tide of enablement in all kinds of businesses. But it is also hard to ignore how new leadership can make a difference in the fortunes of very large companies.

Interestingly, roll-outs of software like SAP and Oracle Apps probably never would have happened without top-down thinking in an organization.  Depending on how you feel about those roll-outs, you can decide whether top-down approaches to process are a good thing or not… In my opinion, top-down support of process improvement and process software is a good thing.  But you’ll benefit by letting the design of process happen as close to where it lives as possible.


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  • Gary Samuelson

    Reads like:
    Leadership versus control.

    I’ve seen it go both ways:

    a) Top-down control works well when our executives understand their business. Examples, obviously, within start-ups. However, this doesn’t really count because this style of leadership implies our executives are playing both “worker” and “leadership” roles (they can afford to until business grows beyond their participation).

    b) Top-down control doesn’t work when executives suffer from short life-cycles. This is where executives are placed “in control” to “control” (reading in cost-cutting versus innovation).  The fall-out is that our executive hasn’t learned enough about the business to be able to define the business.

    A very bad spin on this is the disregard for workforce cognitive abilities. Where… “control” equates the waste of capability. But then, if we’re simply counting beans then the best “bean counter” really doesn’t require much thought. Philosophically, this provides our path towards the “enlightenment versus destruction” argument. Nature forces change: without change nature wins (e.g. “evolve with us or against us” – apologies for the pun).

    • Leadership v Control – great point.
      so how are we doing at bp3? 🙂 

      All too often I see organizations that don’t trust their people. I’d rather see them enable and trust – and set up systems that encourage good behavior and reward it – rather than rewarding short-term gains only.

      • Gary Samuelson

        Doing great at bp3!

        – Really can’t think of anything more to add… maybe a better espresso machine (something complicated, noisy, requires fresh coffee beans – and a coffee bean roaster). 

        •  We need a more complex coffee making process 🙂 I think at some point I’ll bring in a french press and a burr grinder to change things up a little 😉