A recent essay about eliminating targets by John Wenger caused me to think again about the all too common misguided practice of setting and managing numerical goals. What I am coming to understand more deeply is that most if not all in management aren’t doing the wrong things—such as managing by the numbers and by results—on purpose they are doing them on cue. What do I mean by this?
Most holding management positions do what they do without giving what they do critical thought—if they did they wouldn’t continue the misguided practices. Management practice has become an instinctual-like re-action to common concerns—in short they’re operating on autopilot. Moreover, their concerns are creations of the very same mindset from which their practices emerge.
Think You’re Thinking, Think Again
That is to say, the answers we get are largely dictated by the questions we ask. How do you drive the organization to success? Well you communicate the direction through goal setting of course! How do you control for goal-congruent behavior? By Cascading goals down the hierarchy to turn everyone’s focus toward attaining their respective quantifiable targets and hold them accountable through a performance appraisal process of course! Asking materialist mechanistic questions will produce materialist mechanistic answers; seeking to drive and control can’t help but deliver drive and control-based answers.
When all that you see are machines then you can’t help but wonder how to gain control over them! Managers do what they do because that’s how their (materialist mechanistic) worldview constrains them to perceive and re-act; it’s what they’ve tacitly learned to do and how to be.
This is not only evident among those in management but it is seen in most people in industrialized society no matter the position—it is the way most people roll. Why else do you suppose thoughts and concern are limited to the short-term, to the materiality of reality, and to framing issues in dichotomous either/or terms? Borrowing from Yogi Berra, these are (all) too coincidental to be a coincidence!
Just as believing the world was flat kept all but the courageous pioneers from venturing beyond the boundaries of their world, the materialist mechanistic worldview keeps us similarly constrained, materially fixated and reactive in life. As physicist David Bohm insightfully noted, many fool themselves into believing they are thinking when in fact all they are doing is re-arranging (their) thoughts—quite familiar and often untrue thoughts at that.
This Is Critical
Let’s take heed of the Dakota Indian wisdom “when you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.” It is imperative that we unlearn what isn’t necessarily so; that we have the courage to open our mind to other possibilities, to other systems of thinking. Paraphrasing Oliver Wendell Holmes, the mind stretched by a new idea never returns to its original dimensions. Just think—I mean really think—how exhilarating this would be: Talk about feeling truly alive and empowered!
However, it can be very difficult to let go of the things to which we attach, to which we are addicted. Even if what is believed is no longer true, many still hold on gripping tighter and tighter imprisoning themselves in the process. So it requires courage and the will to learn anew. As Russell Ackoff noted “the only thing more difficult than starting something new in an organization is stopping something old.”
As a result critical thinking is grossly underdeveloped and greatly underutilized. Thinking critically is not synonymous with being a critic. Thinking critically is thinking about your thinking. It is thinking further upstream in the process of thinking, holding up for examination the underlying beliefs and assumptions, thus enabling one to improve his/her thinking. Moreover the effect of the scarcity of critical thinking is compounded because it is an essential compliment to other ways of thinking such as creative thinking, reflective thinking, systems thinking and statistical thinking, all of which can lead to effective management in organizations and in life.
So what can we do? If you are a business educator—either a business school professor or a consultant to business and industry—then develop your critical thinking ability so that you can guide and facilitate others (particularly those in authority) in doing the same. Most importantly, no matter your position or role seek guidance from those who can help you to improve your thinking. Your customers, employees and fellow human beings will be very grateful you decided to take the lead to learn anew!