There's no doubt that the world is experiencing a period of acute economic anxiety and falling economic performance. This applies to matters both large and small and it has a profound effect on managers and their management styles.
We've been here before - what goes up must come down. Of course, the opposite of that old maxim is also true. But it's no comfort to cling on to that expectation in the downside years. Increasing complexity confronts every manager and there is a greatly increased range of options.
So in order to achieve realistic and valuable benefits, which of all too many choices should we adopt? The formula of management style expert Peter Drucker shows the process:
- Which activities and policy areas must we tackle?
- Which activities and policy issues can we safely leave to others?
- Which proposed activities and policies don't have to be undertaken by anyone?
A fourth question exists: that of fundamental power. Are you directing your activities and policies towards realistic, important and rewarding purposes on every measure – economic, financial and social?
Going right to the heart of the matter is a fifth question. Are you analysing each activity and policy to make sure you have understood the root causes of every situation before adopting policies which will commit you to action?
And lastly, have you conducted your planning and decision-making with full participation, involving the staff and clients who will be affected by any solutions as well as a range of independent expertise?
Many years ago I wrote about a survey of middle managers that demonstrated unanimous agreement that participation by staff in decisions affecting their work greatly improved the quality of decisions and execution. However, follow-up revealed the puzzling fact that none of the managers had taken the basic step of acting on their belief.
It sounds easier to adopt the time-dishonoured Order and Obey method. But those kinds of management styles miss a vital trick. If you are going to conquer complexity, people need to understand what they are doing and why.
When based on practical problems and solutions, learning becomes easier, and there's far more point to it.
In a Management Today discussion on 'How to Survive Complexity', Mike Gibson of PricewaterhouseCoopers said: "A lot of the complexity we have is self-imposed. We have created things, we have acquired things, and when we look at them they are more complicated than they should be. The impact on cost and speed is clear."
A key issue is accountability: "Often the model is not fully clear on who is in charge, who is accountable for what when it comes to execution."
The debate among managers and experts in Management Today showed that a major issue is complexity itself. Sir Martin Sorrell said that in a multi-business, multi-client, multi-market group like WPP, "trying to simplify complexity actually ends up destroying value".
I'm reminded of the words of a wise friend who once said to me: "If justifying an investment requires complex calculations, don't do it."
Management styles that lead to self-imposed overload are unnecessary evils. But Sorrell is right when he observes that the networked 21st century "is not for tidy minds".