Carpenter or Cabinet Maker

By Guy Higgins

I often have discussions about leadership versus management. Those discussions usually start because I complain that people use management (or manager) when I think that they should be using leadership (or leader). The pushback I get is that companies use “manager” to encompass the responsibilities of organizing a group of people to achieve the goals of the company. I agree – companies do use “manager” that way. That doesn’t make it correct any more than using the term carpenter when you’re referring to a person skilled in flawless joinery to produce an exquisite piece of furniture. I am not belittling carpenters – carpentry is an important skill and involves no small degree of structural engineering knowledge (albeit mostly informal). Cabinetmakers and carpenters use many of the same techniques – measuring, cutting, joining. That doesn’t mean that any carpenter can make exquisite furniture or that any cabinetmaker will appreciate the easy way to make all the decking pieces line up perfectly at the edge of the deck.

The same perspective applies to leaders and managers. They both use much of the same knowledge. The difference is that you “manage” things like resources and time (just try inspiring time to run more slowly and see what that gets you) while you “lead” people (see how well your team or workforce responds if you move them around like bricks or treat them like the proverbial mushrooms). Continue reading

And in this corner, Improvisation…

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I posted about bureaucracies and both the necessity for what they do (permit large organizations to actually work) and the problems that they create (stasis, stagnation, inefficiency). This week, I want to post about improvisation. I referenced Professor Stephen Asma’s essay on improvisation. He did a far better job of describing improvisation than I could, and I recommend that you read his essay. But, for those of you who are interested in my take on improvisation or who don’t have the time/inclination to read the professor’s essay, here’s how I see it.

Improvisation isn’t just pure ad hoc reaction. There are, I think, two major factors in being able to improvise well – understanding the “rules” that govern improvisation in any specific domain and having lots of experience in that domain. (By “rules” I don’t mean a formal set of written rules such as those that govern bureaucracies, but rather the generally recognized ways in which people can collaborate in non-standard or unplanned ways to achieve their goals). Professor Asma uses jazz improvisation as his model, and I’ll use football. When an experienced quarterback takes the snap and drops back, he frequently sees the play unfolding differently than planned. He now has to improvise to some degree. If he has a lot of experience with his receivers (including his running backs who are in their “receiver mode”), he knows that they will; 1) try to space themselves away from defenders (e.g. get open), 2) move downfield, 3) stay away from their teammates so as not to confuse the situation, 4) move to the same side of the field that the quarterback is moving, and 5) come back to the ball if its thrown to them. None of those rules are in the official football rulebook, but they are the “rules” used by players to recover from a play that has been disrupted by the defense. Exactly what each receiver does isn’t covered by those “rules’” but they permit effective improvisation. Continue reading

In This Corner, Bureaucracy…

By Guy Higgins

I just read an essay in the Aeon e-zine, We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better. I think that, aside from a couple of snarky shots at non-politicians running for office, the article is excellent (and even those snarky shots have some degree of validity). I also expect you are now asking yourself what learning to improvise better has to do with bureaucracy, so I’ll elaborate.

The essay starts off recounting a story about bureaucracy and then goes into a brief comparison of a “bureaucratic mindset” vs. a more “improvisational mindset.” The author, Professor Stephen Asma, comes down firmly on the side of learning to be better improvisers while recognizing that improvisation can be both good and bad. This post and next week’s post will do that compare-and-contrast thing that Sister Mary Godzilla often required in class, which cast terror into all sixth-grade minds. Continue reading


By Guy Higgins

I came across an interesting reference recently – Goodhart’s Law. Charles Goodhart observed, “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.” I think that’s a pretty good statement, but the phrasing that I saw elsewhere that started me thinking about it was, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Both phrasings mean the same thing – data can only tell you something important when the data are not managed or controlled. Continue reading

Leadership or Management

By Guy Higgins

My last post (about Elon Musk’s communication memo/email to Tesla employees) included a short comment about Mr. Musk’s use of “manager” and my preference for “leader.” I want to explore that more this week.

To provide some clarity in “communicating,” I want to start with my definitions of leadership and management:

  • Leadership is people-focused. The goal of leadership is to create and maintain an organization/team/company/whatever that can and does perform optimally (and I use that word intentionally) along numerous “dimensions” (such as employee morale, resource allocation, efficiency). Leadership is a skill. There are natural and learned components to it – just as there are to any skill. Some people have personalities and temperaments that contribute more to successful leadership while other peoples’ personalities and temperaments contribute less. People at both extremes can improve their leadership through education, coaching/mentoring and practice.
  • Management is resource-focused. Those resources can include people, but (I will boldly assert) people are only one resource among others. The goal of management is the efficient (and effective) allocation of resources in achieving goals. Metrics and monitoring are crucial to management.

Continue reading

The Smartest Guy in the Room?

By Guy Higgins

I came across an article recently, What Know-it-alls Don’t Know, or the Illusion of Competence. The article captures the results of some psychological studies that yielded what the psychologists today call The Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the cognitive bias of inflating a self-assessment, also known as the “illusion of competence.” One of the things I found interesting is that the bias is most pronounced among those people who are, in reality, the least competent. For example, eighty percent of all drivers believe that they are better than average drivers – with those people with the worst driving records being the most certain of their superior skills. Even more remarkable is how highly college athletes rate their professional potential. Forty to sixty percent (at least some of whom – by definition – are below-average college players) of NCAA athletes (men and women – for all those ladies who were nodding about how vain the male athletes are) believe that they are at least “somewhat likely” to play professionally. The actual percentages hover around one percent. Continue reading

Plan Ahead – Not Behind

By Guy Higgins

I recently read two articles about an organization that had chartered a study to determine the actual results of a policy that had been implemented two years earlier. Neither the organization nor the policy is of any importance to this post. The initial article reported that the study discovered that the policy had had significant unintended adverse consequences. At this point, I need to point out that these consequences were very much unintended but predictable. In fact, the organization had been warned that these consequences were possible, even likely, results of the then-proposed policy. The second article reported that the organization was directing a “do over” of the study. The original study had been conducted by an organization that I recognize and which has a good reputation. Other than that, I have no knowledge of the structure of the study, its assumptions or its methodology, so I’m assuming that a reputable organization chartered to do a (very public) study did a competent job. I don’t have any information on how the study was commissioned or how the goal was articulated. It’s possible that the study was poorly chartered, but that’s a topic for another time.

Okay, “so what has this to do with me?” says the Noble Reader. Continue reading

More on that Cognitively Diverse “Elephant”

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I wrote (yet again – seems to be a favorite subject) about cognitive diversity and the potential to improve performance by putting it to work. This week, I’m going to “talk” about where we can actually leverage cognitive diversity and how we might do that.

First, I want to do a bit of exploring – where might cognitive diversity actually deliver value? As I thought about trying to discuss the subject of where cognitive diversity can contribute to improved performance, I discovered that that is a harder question than I initially thought it would be. Caveat – the following thoughts are (pretty much) all my own. Continue reading

Measuring What Matters

By Guy Higgins

I recently read an article, I’m Sorry But Those Are Vanity Metrics. I thought that the premise of the article was a very good one – will your metrics help you run your company or organization better, or are they a way to compare your company to your competition?

That question is important because the future of your company is more closely related to how well your company is being run than it is to how well you’re doing with respect to your competition. Certainly, how well you’re competing is important, but if your company is merely the best buggy-whip maker, your future doesn’t extend very far past lunchtime. Continue reading

The Right Way…

By Guy Higgins

Leaders have to get things done. It is very difficult to do that when the organization becomes too big. Okay, how big is too big, and what does the leader do about it? “Too big” isn’t very big at all in modern terms. I think that “too big” is any organization larger than Dunbar’s Number. (largest number of people that can maintain a solid relationship with one another). Dunbar’s Number lies somewhere between 100 and 250 – at least I haven’t seen any assertions outside that range. So, an organization larger than about 100 people starts to get too big for a leader to “run” by herself. Being smart, she starts to organize and create parts of the organization small enough to be run by one person. As the organization grows, those smaller parts begin to need even smaller parts. Pretty soon, the Leader (the top of the hierarchy) sees inefficiency throughout her organization because there are borders or boundaries between all the small and smaller parts of the organization. These boundaries hinder the free flow of information and cooperation between the organizational parts. I’ll use a term from electrical engineering for that hindrance – I’ll call it impedance. The Leader understands this and calls the leaders who work for her together and tasks them to develop ways to work together and eliminate this impedance. These leaders, being smart people too, develop some standard ways of working together – within and across organizational boundaries. They create processes and workflows. The Leader looks out and sees that this is good. Continue reading