Changed By It

Here is the promised next installment of the series considering the secular religion of Management-ism. It started HERE, went THERE then OVER-HERE before bouncing back HERE and WHERE? then finally coming to rest UNDER HERE. So where are we now?

For the last fifteen years, I've been facilitating curious workshops. These never told anyone what they should do, and I've developed a strong aversion to anyone who presumes to know what I should do and when I should do it. Nothing I do involves procedures. Nothing seems suited to steps or checklists. This is an improvement over the years following my graduation from university, when I performed a lot of quantitative analysis on what was in retrospect subjective experiences. I attempted to routinize a lot of work which never as a result exhibited routine. For I was infected with the notion that I should measure and, more dangerously, that only if I measured could I properly manage. The people I was charged with managing were wiser than I was, however, and while some of them chased the measurable manageable metric god, none of us ever caught him. And we succeeded at an acceptable rate, anyway.

Jerry Weinberg's Problem Solving Leadership Workshop, which I helped facilitate for seven years, attracted many upwardly mobile middle management types. Some were team leaders tapped to move into management. Others were managers being groomed for executive futures. Some were executives trying to improve their effectiveness. Most came with little understanding of what this experience would bring. Many were frustrated that no one would tell them exactly what they would learn, being used to workshops that provided succinct lists of learning objectives and descriptions of what would be learned.

Jerry invited participants to create their own learning objectives, instead. A pre-work assignment that just baffled many.

The workshop served as a kind of introduction to self more than providing a set of general instructions. Each participant was encouraged to write in a personal journal, and us facilitators called frequent journal breaks for people to jot down their reflections. No one was ever required to share their personal reflections, and aside from an opening ritual where small groups distilled and reported their learning objectives and a closing ritual where each team reported on whether they'd achieved their objectives, personal learning stayed quite personal. No one knew what anyone else was really learning.

I attended my first PSL in the late 80s, when I was a driven middle manager. I was what I've since labeled 'zoned in' on my career, my work life, my company, my projects. I was monoral, single-minded, a driver. My wife at the time complained a lot about my schedule, my obsession with work, claiming that I'd changed since I went to university and took a management job. I couldn't see it. I claimed that while I was no longer the songwriter I once had been, I was "just playing a different-shaped guitar now."

PSL involved a series of simulations, experiential games intended to help people "catch themselves being themselves." I stumbled into myself on the first night, in the middle of a black box simulation. The me I encountered in that game differed so greatly from the persona I'd been inhabiting that I took sick, what I now recognize as soul sick, and missed much of the balance of the workshop. I was deeply changed by that experience.

I had no way to know this at the time, but many who attended PSL over the following years experienced similar results. Many encountered an unfinished or neglected side of themselves and found their resulting selves less willing and able to engage as they had previously unselfconsciously engaged. They woke up and were changed by the experience. Some left the companies that had sent them. Others struggled upon return to find a place for something that had not seemed germane before attending the workshop. Many stayed connected and started a now life-long conversation considering who they are and what they are doing in this world. I'm still connected to many people I first met attending and later facilitating PSL. My present wife, Amy, was a student at PSL when we first met.

What does this have to do with management-ism? Management-ism requires the subjugation of self, the often pre-conscious denial of who I am and what I am doing. To encounter self in a revelatory way, after not being aware of self's absence, unsets more than our carefully constructed house of cards. It changes the game.

As I said, I met Amy at a PSL, where she was 'just another student' when I first noticed her, the shortest member of her learning team, standing on a chair, painstakingly positioning the top tier of cards on a planned eight-foot house of cards. Her team had won the first round of competition, where the challenge was to build a four-foot house of cards, and had taken their proprietary technology and moved from the lobby where other teams could copy to an adjacent dining room for round two. As I approached their construction, yardstick in hand, her team members asked for a measurement. Taking my yardstick, they found that they were building their eight-foot house of cards in a seven-foot, ten-inch room. No way to succeed.

What Amy and her team did then was instructive. They became political. "Would it be good enough to show that we could have succeeded? Can we use Amy's foot in lieu of a standard one?" And they began to build faster. They continued building for a few minutes after time was called on that round in a kind of Wiley Coyote attempt to keep running after losing their ground.

On reflection, Amy realized that she'd stumbled upon a dandy metaphor for her life. Her work assignment was like trying to build an eight foot house of cards in a seven foot ten inch room. So was her marriage. So was her career. She was changed by her unanticipated experience of self.

Management-ists tell stories about how self-less they are, about how they sacrifice for their company, their team, their goals, their customer, just as if their selflessness contributed to creating more value, more results, more satisfaction, as if what matters to them doesn't really matter at all. They can encourage selfless cultures, where their curious affliction gets rewarded as the norm and any semblance of self experienced as evidence of less than full commitment.

F W Taylor deliberately omitted self from his efficient procedures, measuring only what he measured, not the inevitably self-infused organization. The workers complained a lot at the time, reasoning that since Midvale Steel was not competing in the small margin railroad rail market but the huge margin government armaments market, there was plenty of space for a variety of self in the fabrication. Nor did the calculated efficiencies prevent the company, or the bulk of it, from being acquired by the Pittsburgh steel combine and turned away from its DNA. We wonder now what that self-lessness really achieved.

But our training and the context within which we manage seems now to insist upon us acquiring the bug. Those who suffer from it might never suspect their infection. Those who recover from it usually stumble upon or over themselves, then work to incorporate their discovery into something quite distinct from the game they were originally certified in and the one they were convinced they just had to play. Those who've not yet made this discovery remain confident, certain that they are playing the right game right. This unchangeable certainty is clear evidence that something essential's missing from the mix.

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