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How to escape the shackles at work

Last updated on: October 10, 2007 15:40 IST

But wait," you may be saying, "I'm not starting with a clean sheet of paper - and I'm not the CEO. My company's been around for a while and ahs an installed base of white-bread management practices. I don't have the option of building a newfangled management system from the ground up. And there aren't a lot of management heretics around here, either. How o I get the ball rolling, when my company's deeply conventional and has been for decades?"

What you need is a methodology for breakthrough management thinking. While innovation can never be entirely scripted, it is possible to increase the odds of a "eureka" moment by assembling the right ingredients. In the case of management innovation, these ingredients include:

-- A disciplined process for unearthing and challenging the long-standing management orthodoxies that constrain creative thinking.

-- New management principles with the power to illuminate new approaches

--Insights drawn from the practices of "positive deviants" - organizations with management practices that are eccentric yet effective

Unblinkered thinking, fresh principles, and wisdom from the fringe - these are the foundations of a systematic approach to reinventing management. In this chapter and the two that follow, I'll discuss each of these creativity boosters in turn, and demonstrate how they can be used to stoke the fires of management innovation in your company.

Going to War with Precedent

To get started, you're going to have to cross swords with innovation's deadliest foe: the often unarticulated and mostly unexamined beliefs that tether you and your colleagues to the management status quo. All of us are held hostage by our axiomatic beliefs. We are jailbirds incarcerated within the fortress of dogma and precedent. And yet, for the most part, we are oblivious to our own captivity.

The Outsider's Advantage

Physicians, for example, long believed that ulcer were caused by spicy foods, stress, and booze. So strong was this belief that, when two Australian physicians, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, proposed an alternate explanation - that ulcers were caused by an ignoble bacterium - the medical community reacted with snooty disbelief. After all, everyone knew that nothing could live in the stomach's sterile, acidic environment. It didn't help that Marshall and Warren wee based at Royal Perth Hospital rather than at a prestigious research facility, nor that Marshall was a 30-something internist rather than a seasoned gastroenterologist.

Growing up, Marshall had always had a big dose o can-do spirit. (He once improvised a centrifuge by tying blood-filled test tubes to a ceiling fan.) AS a young doctor, he was frustrated that he couldn't provide lasting relief to his ulcer patients. A clue to a potential cure came when Warren, a pathologist at Royal Perth, happened to show Marshall a biopsy taken from the lining of a patient's stomach. Using a high-powered microscope, Warren had noticed a number of small, corkscrew-shaped bacteria. Could they be the culprit? The physicians set out to accumulate more evidence and soon they had their smoking gun.

The strange bacteria were present in virtually all of Marshall's ulcer patients, and absent in samples taken from patients with other maladies. Over the next several months, the pair tried to cultivate the offending microbes in the lab, but to no avail. Then, over a long Easter weekend, Marshlal happened to leave one of his cultures unattended for six days, rather than the usual two. Upon returning to work, Marshall discovered that his Petri dish was alive with germs. When he couldn't induce ulcers in animals by feeding them the cultured bacteria, the intrepid researcher ingested a three-day-old dose himself. Sure enough, seventy-two hours later her awoke with all the grossly unpleasant symptoms of severe gastritis.

With his hypothesis seemingly confirmed, Marshall set about developing a treatment program using antibiotics and bismuth (the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol). Within weeks this regimen had eradicated the ulcers in a majority of his patients. Thrilled, Marshall rushed off to a conference of microbiologists in Brussels and enthusiastically presented his findings. He was shocked, though, when the attendees threw up a wall of objections. More than a few pronounced him a "madman."

Marshall was similarly rebuffed when he submitted his findings for publication in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine -- both of which refused to sanction his offbeat theory. It would be years before Marshall and Warren's groundbreaking work would change ulcer treatment protocols around the world. Finally, in 2005, more than 20 years after their first experiment, the two indefatigable researchers got the recognition they deserved and were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine.

Why, one might ask, did this unlikely duo succeed where so many veteran researchers had failed? Marshall thinks he knows the answer: "The people who have a stake in the old technology are never the ones to embrace the new technology. It's always someone a bit on the periphery, who hasn't got anything to gain by the status quo, who is interested in changing it."

Of course it's hard to think like an outsider when you've spent years swimming in the mainstream. If you had never heard of W L Gore, for example, would you have believed that a company could give every employee the right to say no to any request and still maintain operational discipline? Like fish that can't conceive of a world not immersed in water, most of us can't envision management practices that don't correspond to the norms of our own experience. Even our language is hostage to our praradigmatic beliefs. Consider, for example, how thoroughly the option of hierarchy has infiltrated the lexicon of management. "Chain of command." Pyramid." "Boss." "Subordinate." "Direct reports."

"Organizational level." "Top-down." "Bottom-up." "Cascade." All these terms connote a formal scale of power and authority. Indeed, managers have as many ways of talking about hierarchy as Eskimos have of talking about snow. Now try to conjure up a vocabulary that describes the features of a "lattice" or networked organization. How many terms ca you come up with? That's the problem: It's tough to imagine something we lack the language to describe.

Questioning Our Inheritance

Remember the old saw about the tendency of generals to refight the last war rather than the one at hand? Like experts in other fields, military leaders have a hard time dethroning out-of-date beliefs. One example: for nearly a century after the invention of the musket, European generals continued to arrange their infantry in formations better suited to pikes and bows than to flintlocks. Two generations of commanders had to pass from the scene before new and more appropriate force formations finally supplanted traditional battlefield groupings. This anecdote illustrates two important characteristics of any dominant paradigm: first, it is usually bequeathed from one generation to the next; and second, the beneficiaries often take possession without questioning its provenance or its relevance to new contexts.

Think about it: How did you come by your basic beliefs about the best way to organize, motivate, lead, plan, and allocate resources? No doubt you were socialized and indoctrinated-in B-school lectures and management development programs, I coaching sessions with mentors and in conversations with colleagues. The fact is, you inherited most of your management beliefs from others. They came to you, secondhand, from celebrity CEOs, management gurus, and gray-haired professors -- most of whom are either long-dead, long-retired, or long in the tooth. Now, with so much change afoot, it's time to reexamine your heirloom beliefs.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press.  Excerpted from The Future of Management by Gary Hamel.  Copyright 2007 Gary Hamel.  Price Rs 1145 (approximately). All rights reserved.

Gary Hamel is Visiting Professor of Strategic and International Management at the London Business School; Co-founder of Strategos, an international consulting company.

Gary Hamel