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FAQ: “Typical North American Management”

I often refer to “Typical North American Management” in my presentations and writing. The term is even referenced in the Amazon listing for Iterate. Over the years I’ve gotten enough questions about it that I thought a quick Q and A would be useful. So here we go…

Q: What do you mean by “typical North American management”?

A: It’s a term I inherited from my mentor and predecessor; I use it as shorthand for the standard way that most companies are managed and run.  My understanding is that about 80% of companies across all spaces work in roughly this way. It’s the basis for what we see in media, and what we carry and reinforce in popular culture regarding how management works.

Why “North American”? Isn’t this worldwide?

It often is, but I’m reasonably certain this style of management comes from habits that grew out of North American industrialization and commercialization, influencing outward from there. (Think: cross-country railway construction.) Plus, in working globally on Iterative Management®, I’ve found other cultures often struggle with different aspects of the methodology, I think because they enter with different norms. For example, US managers frequently have a hard time with the idea that a management team succeeds or fails together – we’re still a bit culturally stuck on the idea of lone cowboys succeeding despite their coworkers or leadership.  Eastern cultures seem often to have fewer challenges on that front, but more difficulty than their US counterparts with the idea of making and acting on decisions in the face of overt disagreement.  So, I say “North American” to remind myself and everyone that not all cultures start from the same set of assumptions.

OK, so what is typical North American management?

There’s lots of nuance to that answer, but at a high level it’s the idea that management’s job is to set a strategy and a plan at the beginning of the year and then meet weekly or regularly with employees to check how things are going and report it upwards, fixing problems as they go.

What’s wrong with that?

Nothing… except that it doesn’t work because it’s not well-matched to reality.  As soon as we start to move forward in time, things change! Efforts go differently than expected or have different results, we learn new and different things about what we’re trying to accomplish and the environment we’re doing it in, and the all-important plan becomes progressively less reflective of real life.  Managers respond to that difference by running around between meetings trying to figure out what has changed, who they need to talk to about it, and what needs to be decided how and by whom, to get somewhat back on track. Then they go to meetings with their bosses and give performative status updates with various levels of positive spin that basically can be summarized as “things are mostly on track here, don’t worry, and please look somewhere else.”

This puts the boss in the position of having to suss out what’s really happening and work solo to uncover problematic interdependencies. Worse, with five of those updates at about nine minutes each, a one-hour weekly staff meeting can come and go without ever looking at any high priority issues or making any significant decisions.  It’s more like a series of one-on-one meetings with the rest of the team taking turns in the role of an audience that may be allowed to ask clarifying or philosophical questions but wouldn’t dare poke holes in the narrative for fear of having the favor returned.

Yeah, that meeting could have been an e-mail.

Then what’s the opposite of typical North American Management?

It’s what I call Iterative Management®, though it’s the behaviors that matter, not the label. In this approach, the group gets together, and someone says, “hey boss, we’re trying to get to point A in the future together. Right now my part of things looks like it’s pushing us more toward point B.  Here’s what I recommend all of us do to get back on track and/or adjust our expectations.” In about three minutes, one person can tee up a substantive discussion, and then the leader along with multiple impacted team members can make a decision and commit to some action before they leave. In this way you get more decisions per cycle, more actions per cycle, and more chances to revisit changes that didn’t work in the way that was expected in prior cycles. Meetings actively engage team members in deciding on what to do today to influence tomorrow, instead of saddling them with dog-and-pony shows or improvisational speaking exercises focused mostly on what’s already happened.

So both typical North American management and Iterative Management® are about meetings?

Yes and no. Meetings are where the management culture is most apparent, so it’s true that a move toward Iterative Management® will change how meetings look and how well they function. It’s also true that if you hire your friendly local Iterate® guy to assess your management culture, he’ll spend a lot of time watching meetings because they’re a showcase of what’s happening.  But you can’t fix management culture just by fixing meetings, because many of the behavioral norms required to make the meetings better happen before and after them. The change makes meetings more effective, but it’s much more than an effective meetings campaign.

The most useful way to think about meetings is as the stage on which your management culture plays out – in particular, its flexibility, its adaptability, and its capacity for intelligent group decision-making and quick action. If you watch for those issues in management meetings and aren’t happy with what you see, that’s a big hint that you have some improvement to do outside of them as well.  By the way, if you’re not sure how to observe your meetings for those elements, every copy of Iterate includes a pretty detailed Assessment of Iterative Management® Practices, so if you already have the book that’s a good (and free) place to start.

If I want to move my group away from typical North American management and toward Iterative Management®, what’s the best way to start?

Making this information as accessible as possible is part of my ongoing work and consistent with my values. If you want to do it yourself, the website and video collections are free, and the book is relatively inexpensive. If you want help, classes and simulations are engaging and moderately priced. If you just want to get thing started fast, the one-quarter accelerator provides quick and substantive payoff.

But whatever you do, I’d encourage you to get in the habit of noticing and steering away from typical North American management.  Unless you’re doing something as simple and linear as building long stretches of railway, you and your team would probably benefit from a more sophisticated approach.

Like this and want more? Watch Ed Muzio’s new TV Series, “One Small Step” on C-Suite Network TV. And, Visit the Group Harmonics Industry Intelligence Archive for ideas, whitepapers, and case studies about changing culture and how management culture impacts so many facets of the organization.

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