Spend enough time as a leader and you’ll be exposed to an endless series of new models for leading, managing, and organizational change. How do you tell the difference between the fly-by-night fads and the ideas worth your time investment? That’s a skill leaders need to develop.
You may recall the clash of titans that occurred when Jill Lepore authored a dissection and takedown of Clayton Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation, followed by a not-so-subtle critique of Lepore’s lack of scholarship in response from Christensen. Having discussed Lepore’s essay with colleagues, friends, and relatives, I found that it resonated with many of them for a simple reason. Someone finally called BS on the current “big thing” fad that we are all supposed to embrace. Whether or not Lepore’s attack on Christensen’s research evidenced scholarship worthy of her position as a Harvard University professor mattered little for most readers. Year after year of a relentless wave of “next big thing” ideas—that new thing to which we all need to give our attention—appears to have left people burnt out by another leadership guru offering one more big thing we all need to do whether or not it truly applies to our own lives, work or personal.
Falling for Fads
What faddish management practices did your library administration introduce? Management by Objectives? Theory Z? One-Minute Manager? Total Quality Control? So many to choose from. Maybe you were the one who championed it. The phrase “management fad” is applied in the pejorative sense to describe an approach to management or leadership that achieves fast popularity but quickly fades. How do you recognize what’s a fad and what has enduring value, other than by waiting to see if it sticks around? There are few rules here, but it’s often the case that when there’s a sudden rush of books about a new management or leadership practice, accompanied by a frenzy of attention in the business press—not to mention expensive workshops offering to make you an expert—you should be wary. That’s not to say any of the above mentioned fads were totally without merit. It’s more a matter of the degree to which the leadership team jumped on the proverbial bandwagon and invested whole hog in this new trend. There’s probably one surefire way to know if it was a fad or a keeper. Did Dilbert’s boss give it a try? Yes? Definitely a fad.
Stands the Test of Time
While we expect our leaders to make good decisions and avoid falling victim to the latest management fad, figuring out whether the next big thing is the real thing is no easy chore. The surefire path is to stay the course and avoid trying anything new. You’ll never be accused of falling for a fad, but that sounds rather dull and risk averse. A new leadership practice may be so appealing it seems worth giving it a try. More than a few library leaders made Collins’ Good to Great required reading for staff because that’s what others were doing, even if they had no real plan for action beyond just having everyone read the book—as if some magically wonderful changes would then occur. That’s not to say we shouldn’t read such books. Good to Great is a classic business leadership book, and hopefully its lessons made an impression on those who read it. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is a set of personal and professional leadership principles that appears to have stood the test of time. A leader who reminds staff that they need to “sharpen the saw” or that a decision process needs to “begin with the end in mind” can create a special culture of understanding that staff will find easy to follow and engage with. The leadership challenge is picking the right idea for the organization and then following through with effective implementation.
Beyond Riding the Wave
That means having the ability to detect the real next big thing for your library without succumbing to the ideas that are merely promoted as the next big thing. In his essay titled “Beware the Next Big Thing” (see Harvard Business Review May 2014 for the full article), Julian Berkinshaw explores how leaders can look beyond the hype to make better decisions about choosing the right management or leadership practice to adopt. He asks us to consider an up and coming possibility—the holacracy—an organizational structure in which there are no job titles and no managers. It’s getting lots of attention because Zappos is doing it, and Tony Hsieh has a great track record as a successful entrepreneur and leader of a highly motivated staff. Does that mean the holacracy is right for your library? Berkinshaw studies management trends and the impact the media plays in creating the hype that turns new ideas into fads. Ninety percent of the approximate 100 branded management ideas that Berkinshaw studied were no longer popular within ten years. The goal is to do more than ride the next wave. As a leader you need to find the perfect wave for your organization.
Take Time and Ask Questions
How do you know which ideas are in the sustainable ten percent? One approach is to “observe-and-apply”. Google’s 20 percent policy, which allows staff to devote twenty percent of their time to work on innovative projects, is a good example. Is it a fad or a keeper? Observe to find out how it works elsewhere and what factors make a difference between success and failure, and then apply in a similar fashion or with modifications to fit your culture. Be prepared to stick with it. In those companies where the twenty percent policy failed, it was usually because management gave up on it too soon.
Let’s say you do succumb to infatuation with a new idea. Berkinshaw recommends the following steps before going with full adoption:
Bide your time: Give that new practice some time for testing to see if it lasts. That might take a year or more, but it will show if the idea was more than hype;
Deconstruct the management model: Ask lots of questions to get at the what and why behind the practice. Invite others to take part in this deconstruction process;
Understand the hypotheses: Turn the idea into a hypothesis (allowing staff to work from home with boost morale and increase productivity) and then set about testing it;
Look for results: What results did the original practitioner achieve? If it looks good,dig a bit deeper and ask how similar your organization and its challenges are to the one that got the right results;
Experiment: If the results of these other steps point in the right direction, it is probably a good idea to do some limited testing with segments of the organization. Collect the data and then analyze if it will work.
That Next Great Idea Can Come From Anywhere
Despite discovering many business fads that fail, Berkinshaw is optimistic that the rewards of adoption can be worth the risk of trying out a new management idea, even it could be a big bust and leave a leader looking bad. Leaders need to avoid becoming cynical about the next big thing, as it will put them into a state of paralysis when it comes to trying new ideas. I advocate being open minded to any new theory or practice that could help improve decision making, communication skills, or lead to a better leadership style. My recommended strategy is to stay current on the literature of leadership and expose yourself to a range of commentary and theory, delving into scholarly sources, essays that share the latest research, and a mix of leadership blogs. You may get a spark from a Dan Rockwell blog post, an article in the Harvard Business Review, or Karol Wasylyshyn’s latest leadership book. Or it could be an 18-minute Ted Talk. By no means was I the only one with whom Simon Sinek’s Start With Why presentation resonated. First appearing in 2010, it’s been viewed over 18 million times and remains one of the top five most popular Ted Talks. But are Sinek’s strategies for leaders truly of value, or is it just another fad to say “start with why”? I have found value in it as a leader, but there are many who critiqued it as old wine in a new bottle.
Start With Yourself
It’s just a matter of time before any of us, in our leadership role, will become infatuated with a management guru’s latest trend. That alone is not a problem. What matters is the degree to which you, as a leader, are personally committed to that idea. Whether everyone is jumping on or off the bandwagon may matter less than what you believe you can accomplish with that idea. If you believe in it, if you have a passion for it, and if you are willing to share it with others then it could truly make a difference for you, your colleagues, and your community. As leaders we must avoid constantly shifting from one new idea to another without real direction and purpose. What is the “why” behind this idea and your enthusiasm for it? Staff may give you the benefit of the doubt when it comes to introducing a new idea—even if it flops—if the trust is there. If you’re constantly calling for change every time you latch on to a new leadership philosophy or think it’s time for a culture shift, staff will simply find you unreliable and unpredictable—and that’s a trust destroyer. Without the trust and support of staff and stakeholders, your next great leadership idea won’t make much of a difference.