Two toxic management myths

A basic and well documented characteristic of human behavior is that, in any group, most of the activity is done by a small number of individuals.  What one does with this information makes a difference.

The phenomenon has been extensively studied in math, physics, economics, biology and human behavior. It goes by many names, including the Pareto principle or Pareto Distribution, the Zetadistribution, Zipf’s law, the Power Law, the 80-20 rule, and literally dozens of other names.  On the internet it is sometimes called the 90-9-1 principle  or the 1% rule.

The phenomenon is so common that it has become a cultural meme:  edits to Wikipedia (50% of all Wikipedia article edits are done by 0.7% of users, and more than 70% of all articles have been written by just 1.8% of all users), the majority of Flickr contributors submit just a few images and the majority of images are from a few contributors, most bills in Congress are sponsored by a few active legislators and most legislators sponsor almost no legislation, the bulk of donations to charities, politics, and fund-raising efforts are large donations by a few donors and the majority of donors contribute only a small piece of the whole, almost all the goals in soccer are scored by a few players, a tiny percent of the population is responsible for almost all the crime in that population...

The fact that the bulk of the work is consistently done by a small group is not lost on leadership or management in political, social, and business organizations. Unfortunately, they misunderstood and misapply this, resulting in two very toxic management myths:

  1. The potential contributions from the vast majority are unimportant compared to the contributions by the active minority.
  2. The vast majority will be willing to actively support and conform to the plans and projects created by the active minority.

The result has been a management model founded on a hierarchy that is populated by a small percent of the group and managed in a top-down command-and-control fashion. During the Second Industrial Age beginning in the early 20th Century, this was appropriate and successful. This was a manufacturing setting where the knowledge base was finite, limited and static, the cost of communication and information sharing was quite high, the skill set for the workers was simple, the workforce was minimally educated and trained, the product was supposed to be uniform, and all this happened in a system where change was slow and relatively predictable.

That was then. This is now. This model is tremendously inappropriate and does not work in our current post-Industrial era, characterized by a high-tech and information-driven society where the knowledge base, if not infinite, is certainly growing and changing faster than our ability to manage it and is unpredictable to boot, where the skill sets are diverse, complex and constantly changing, the workforce is highly educated and accustomed to a significant degree of autonomy, the product is supposed to be individualized on the fly, and all this happens in a universe where change and unpredictability are the norm.

To thrive in the 20th Century, organizations must recognize that the cost of making information available and encouraging matrix or networked communication and collaboration has become inconsequential at the same time the need for information availability and networked communication and collaboration has become immense.




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