Unclassified top secret document

Why You Can Tell Your Big Secret To Success (they won’t do it)

Forrest ChristianManaging, Underachievers Leave a Comment

A few years back, I took on my first ISO 9001 project. An IT outsourcing company, then still in North America, wanted to certify the Desktop Support groups at each outsource contract in the world. You can apparently just do one site and certify the operations everywhere. Upper management gave them 90 days to complete the project. Just one quarter.

The site I was working with got chosen and because I’m too stupid to know that it was impossible, I volunteered to spearhead it for them and make sure it got done.

And we did.

We got the highest score that the auditor had ever given anyone. Ever.

I mention this partly because I like saying how great I am, but mostly to illustrate an important point that is related to what I talked about last week (“Why There Is Never Going To Be A Silver Bullet“): when you do something head and shoulders better than other people do it, you can tell your Big Secrets to everyone and still be safe in the knowledge that no one will ever be able to compete with you.

The reason is simple: managers will cling to their old (wrong) management faith even when you show them what really works. They simply aren’t going to be able to do what you did.

Smart people are the worst at this. Take, for example, Elliott Jaques, the genius who brought us timespan of discretion and the midlife crisis. He worked with Glacier Metal Company, of which Wilfred Brown was the Managing Director and Chairman. Brown died believing that a participative institution like the one he created, the Glacier Works Council, was the key to the organization’s success. It endorsed the power of the unions in policy making, and Brown died in the early 1980s a strong supporter of unions.

Jaques, though, reportedly later told folks that Glacier had abandoned the works councils as being irrelevant and detrimental once his “timespan” measurements and work levels were implemented. Jaques did not have the mental model that would allow for the complexity of reality that Wilfred Brown believed was necessary for success, and for building strongly democratic (small “d”) values in employees. Once his own mental model was rejected by the unions, Jaques apparently rejected them and wrote them out of his memory of what happened at Glacier. Jaques picked and chose amongst the things that Glacier actually did together, and cast out the things that were explained within his value system.

Which is odd, because managers do the same type of denial when confronted with Jaques’s scientific theories. They hear his ideas of natural hierarchy and place them into the context of their existing, unnatural hierarchies. The ideas get twisted because people aren’t willing to do the whole thing.

The same is true of how Inglis, the Canadian white goods manufacturer, increased sales 50% by using Glacier-y ideas, taking over the number one spot in the industry from a company that had been there since the 19th century. Inglis could tell everyone exactly what they did and have absolutely no fear that people will follow them because to do so would mean confronting deep faith in things that are unproven.

Peter Block has said that “most of what we do in business we do on faith”, that we don’t really have proof that the systems that we believe in actually work. It is our faith that keeps us continuing to do things that study after study show is counterproductive, because our actions are not based in reality but in our beliefs.

This even came up in Influencer: The Power to Change Anything. They detail six influence levers, six different things that you must do to influence behaviors, in yourself or others. They pointed out that most people hear these and think that because there are six, that they are a buffet of choices.

People pick one or two of the six levers that fit with what they are already doing unsuccessfully and end up no better off than they were before.

You have to use all six levers, they wrote. You can’t ignore any of them.

People fail to influence because to use all six requires that we abandon favorite beliefs about other people. We can’t do that — even in the face of clear evidence that our way isn’t working but the Influencer system does. Our personal self-worth is tied to our existing system.

This is related to the finding by Wharton’s J.Scott Armstrong that business people aren’t driven by profit but by winning, even when it means being profitless. (See my archive post, “Why Rewarding Competitiveness Is Stupid If You Want To Make Money” for more.) Business people can’t stop wanting to win though it means earning less or even no money.

I can therefore write about all my business secrets and safely know that managers are never going to replicate them, any more than most business people believe that I did these things.

If you want to make money or just influence people, the Way is hard and but it’s not complex.

You just have to abandon your ego and preconceptions.

Which is why you can lay bare your entire secret. Few executives will have the courage to embed the whole system.

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