All entries for Thursday 26 July 2007

July 26, 2007

How versus what

Imagine two factories making similar things. Widgets, if you’re happy with abstract examples; MP3 players, if you like to be able to visualise your thought experiment better.

In a spooky coincidence, factory A is run by Mr A, and factory B by Mr B. In a slightly unrealistic departure from reality, let’s assume that Mr A and Mr B are both responsible for everything to do with the creation of these widgets, right from their design through to their manufacture and their marketing.

Mr A and Mr B have slightly different views as to how they ensure that their factory turns out the best possible widget. If you ask Mr A about his role and responsibilities, he will tell you that it’s his job to be concerned about how his factory designs and builds things. He has, he will tell you, all sorts of metrics about how much the raw materials cost, how long the assembly takes, how many people work on the widgets, who does what and how long it takes them. He demands daily reports about how the factory is running and has spreadsheets, graphs and gant charts showing with great precision how today compares to yesterday, how this week compares to last week and what might reasonably be expected tomorrow and next week. If there is to be a change to the design of the widget or the way it’s manufactured, Mr A has processes in place to handle this too; there will be a process for defining the change and its costs and benefits, and a process for implementing the change when it’s ready.

Mr B, on the other hand, will tell you that his job is to be concerned about what the factory is building. His role is to provide a vision and a definition of what the widget should do, what it should look like, how it should work, how it behaves. Just as Mr A pushes to get the best possible process he can envisage, Mr B pushes for the best possible widget he can envisage. Should it have rounded corners? Square corners? How many buttons? Is it easy to work, straight out of the box? Does it do what people want? Will it surprise and delight them?

If you describe what Mr B does to Mr A and vice-versa, they are both politely sceptical about the way the other sees his role. How, wonders Mr A, can you run a business without caring about how things are done? But how, wonders Mr B, can you make great widgets if you don’t work and work at defining and refining your vision for what the widget is and does?

In some management theories, Mr A is a manager, but Mr B isn’t; he’s a leader. And obviously, it’s oversimplifying to suggest that any organisation works solely on Mr A’s or Mr B’s model; they all have some of both. But given the choice to buy a widget from an ‘A’ focussed company or a ‘B’ focussed one, which would you choose? Given the chance to buy shares in company A or company B, which would you choose?


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