NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Talent execs have a question to answer, according to Gary Hamel: "What the hell is the point of all this?"
Speaking at the 2019 Workhuman conference, Hamel, a long-time professor at the London Business School, speaker, management expert and director of the Management Innovation eXchange, passionately extolled the promise of the "humanocracy" — but noted that employers still have far to go to bust the bureaucracy that defines how many organizations work.
"The promise of building truly human-centric organizations is almost as elusive now as it was 60 years ago," he said during his keynote speech. While employee-facing technology has only gotten better and better, the way people are managed has not changed as much — and it is that old management style that drives employees to disengage from an organization, according to Gallup data Hamel cited during his talk. Most jobs are currently designed to require little to no originality from workers, despite the glut of problems that require creative thinking facing every organization.
Why? Hamel blames "bureausclerosis," or the build up of the "bureaucratic plaque" of behaviors, policies and internal compliance requirements that weigh down the real work an organization is trying to do each day, in essence clogging the company's arteries. In a company suffering bureausclerosis, political behaviors help someone get ahead, not the actual skills required for the job, and new ideas are treated with hostility.
"This is why no incumbent company got out in front of the digital transformation," Hamel said.
Bureaucracy has its place; it's a social technology that is supposed to improve efficiency, especially for tasks that must be done over and over again, Hamel noted. But too much of it makes people less human and less capable of doing what they need to do. At the Workhuman conference, being "more human" is a key theme.
In response, Hamel discussed five approaches that employers can take to dissolve the bureaucracy weighing them down.
Count the cost
Sometimes an employer has to come to terms with what it allows, Hamel said. Are there too many layers and staffers? Are decision paths "long and torturous?" Are employees discouraged from taking initiative? Is politicking favored over employees being competent? These questions add up to a company's "Bureaucratic Mass Index," Hamel said. You can't kill something you don't know.
Learn from the vanguard
Employers don't have to trailblaze alone. Hamel suggested companies look at how innovators act and see what could be borrowed or adapted. Some companies allow teams to choose their own leaders. Some allow teams to self-organize. Hamel noted that one of GE's jet plants only has one manager over 400 people — and that plant is one of their most productive teams in the whole company because workers can largely self-organize and innovate.
"We're on tap for a major disruption of the management model," he said. The "Netflixation" of management is coming, he added. Employers that allow themselves to truly experiment will be ahead of the curve.
Embrace new principles
Once upon a time, the divine right of kings was considered the only way for governments to rule. Nowadays, governments largely no longer follow that principle and have grown in turn. Similarly, employers can't solve the new problems with the old principles, Hamel said.
"We simply cannot go any further with the principles that we have," he added. "Until you go back to your principles, you can't make real change." Current management policies make control an imperative, but "no one will win" because they have the best control, Hamel said. And HR management — viewing people as a resource — may have to be one of the principles that must change.
Luckily for HR, it can be an arbiter for that change, he said. Employees want ownership and autonomy over their work. They want to be free to actually experiment — and be allowed to fail. Employers can distribute decision making across teams and hold peers accountable to the company's mission. The people closest to the problem are often in the best position to solve it, Hamel said; "If your CEO is not willing to say this in front of the organization, you will fall to your competitors."
And remember: people are humans. It's "absolutely rubbish" that we can't bring personal things to work, Hamel said. If an employee struggles with something but has to hide it for eight to 10 hours a day, productivity suffers — and that doesn't even account for the human cost of holding that pain in and hiding it.
Hamel suggests picking one of these aspects and running with it to bust the company's biggest bureaucracy problems.
Don't expect change to happen top-down
HR execs have to be especially aware that front-line employees largely believe that the people who have power don't want to give it up. "You don't have enough hours in the day to convince" execs at your company to behave differently, Hamel said. "Why would they change a game that enables them?"
That's why change has to roll up, not down, he added. Enable managers to teach employees about their own jobs and create a culture that gives individuals the power to make changes to how they work.
"I hope we never talk about roll out," he said. "I hope we talk about roll up."
Employees need to be free to try things, Hamel said. It's the only way innovation rolls up. In a world of experimentation, employees can act like owners and work in smaller operating units. Leaders are "chosen by the led" and tasks are chosen by the workers enabled to collaborate.
Ultimately, what cracked the divine right of kings, the entrenched nature of slavery and the patriarchy was a moral consensus — not a utilitarian one, he said. And to Hamel, that is how employers can bring an end to bureaucracy and employee misery at work.
"We need more indignation" about how things currently function, he said — and talent leaders can be at the forefront of that kind of change.