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?


- 13 comments by 6 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Or is Mr A a manager and Mr B a kind of engineer?

    Is it the difference between quality of product and profit margin? I think as a consumer I’d chose Mr B, but as a shareholder if chose Mr A – unless, of course, Mr B’s products were selling like hot IPod cakes…

    26 Jul 2007, 12:44

  2. Robert O'Toole

    Interesting. I’ve just sat through a long meeting in which Mr A talked a lot about the kind of things that Mr A is interested in. So I asked: “how are you communicating all of this success to the customers?” Answer: “I don’t want to do that until i’ve got all of the data and all of the proof, and then I can present the arguments and the data to the customers, when they ask for it, in response to their specific problems”.

    When I tried to explain that very few customers are interested in that kind of information, he just didn’t get it. So I argued that it’s really important for us to get people to be confident in using IT. But that seemed to be a low priority to Mr A.

    Also, no mention was made of how Mr A works out exactly what the customers want, now or in the future. Does that mean that Mr A might be so obsessed with the detail of the performance of tiny aspects of the production of a product, such that he fails to realise that no one actually wants it anymore?

    26 Jul 2007, 13:07

  3. Leighton Joskey

    Company B sounds like much more fun to be part of, though it’ll probably go bust quicker.

    26 Jul 2007, 16:07

  4. Jenny Delasalle

    Well, you have to have both. There’s no two ways about it. Mr A is in danger of losing track of what his customers want, as Rob explains, and Mr B is in danger of losing track of how the whizzy widgets are built… or even if they are being built. Mr A might have a better range of widgets if he has staff he can rely on to do the creative direction, because he would be capable of ensuring that they get built. With creative input from several sources he might be able to develop a strategy and be more likely to hit the mark than Mr B, but he would need to listen. So I would be his customer and consider buying shares in his company if he had some people like Mr B working for him.

    Mr B would need a team of competent administrators to follow his strategic direction, with whom he communicates regularly and who understand him. As an individual a lot of responsibility falls on his sole opinion, and I would only invest in him or buy his product if I happened to agree with his direction. If he manages to get the product to the market….

    26 Jul 2007, 16:22

  5. John Dale

    > Well, you have to have both. There’s no two ways about it.

    Mmm. In my experience, there are always two ways about it, and often more. :-)

    But in one sense, I think you’re right; in most organisations the question of how things are done matters, and somebody needs to think about it. What I think is less clear is the question of who that should be. I’m struck by examples such as Best Buy and Saturn in the US, where they have made huge efforts to devolve responsibility for almost every aspect of the “how” question down to people doing the work. So Best Buy has abandoned the idea of office hours and physical presence as rules imposed by managers, and instead allows everyone to make their own choice about when, where and for how long they work. Saturn allows assembly line workers to divide up their tasks as they see fit and to form whichever groups seem appropriate to them to work most effectively. There are other examples which I would look up if it weren’t almost bed time. :-)

    But the underlying point which I have on my mind, I suppose, is whether the how question necessarily needs to be defined up front by someone senior and passed on in the form of instructions to others, or whether in some cases it might be a sort of emergent property. If there’s a team which wants to create the best possible widget – they’re all enthusiastic about the idea of the widget, they all want to make it as good as it can be – then does that team need to be told how to operate, or can/will it discover most the effective way to work for itself?

    26 Jul 2007, 22:56

  6. Jenny Delasalle

    If you have a mixed approach then the manager (Mrs M) should consider some of the details, but not all. Part of getting the team enthusiastic has to be making them see that it is possible: some people are resistant to change, and might not like the latest widget design.

    Mrs M would need to have some ideas about how the widget could be built, although she might like to keep those ideas quiet whilst briefing her team, in order to find out if they have better ideas – after all they are at the coalface, as it were. Mrs M would then be able to take a strategic view of how the whole team were working and may need to make some adjustments, and intervene where there are weaknesses. This might be only to prompt further thinking from the team rather than to impose her own ideas, but it is Mrs M’s responsibility (it’s she who the bank manager will chase!) to ensure that the process is thought out by someone. It is likely that Mrs M might have to steer her team in a different direction than they would choose without intervention at times, as she would have a view of the whole that her team cannot see.

    The key is communication – of the right information, at the right time. The team should let Mrs M know what they’re doing and Mrs M should ensure that they receive steering at the right time. This is a delicate balancing act, because too much steering will put the team off and too little will mean that they lose sight of the goal and therefore motivation. Likewise too much information from the coalface will distract Mrs M, and too little will mean that things could go off course.

    It would have to be a truly inspirational manager (or a team who can draw inspiration from elsewhere) to develop a successful widget without ever getting involved in any of the spreadsheets and gant charts. It is rare that the whole team will agree on the best way forward as they will each have their own agendas, but if they trust their manager then the widget is more likely to be built, in the most profitable and efficient way.

    27 Jul 2007, 14:25

  7. Roger Lindley

    It largely depends on the product.

    If were looking at cars, factory A would be a company whose products have a reputation for “safe” (in both positive and negative senses) design. Think Japanese, say, Toyota. Factory B would be known for cutting edge breathtaking styling, but poor reliability. Think Italian, say, Lancia.
    Surveys such as JD Power show that a lot of people only want a car to get them from A to B, reliably and cheaply. On the other hand, some people do care about style. However, for cars, quality usually wins. Toyota will soon be the world’s largest car manufacturer.

    Personal thingummyjigs, on the other hand, are a different matter. Soon we will be able to get something that makes mobile phone calls, records, stores and plays mp3 tracks and mpeg4 movies, stores more personal information about our contacts than we could possibly ever need, surfs the internet….. the list goes on. Reliability over a long period of time is unlikely to be an issue, since the target customer will want something else in six months’ time anyway. Company B wins.

    Having worked in the British Automotive Industry, I would say that there was not enough thought in the style of either company, A or B, but the bottomline was “get the product out of the f***ing door ASAP

    27 Jul 2007, 22:00

  8. Roger Lindley

    we’re Ach!

    27 Jul 2007, 22:02

  9. John Dale

    It would have to be a truly inspirational manager (or a team who can draw inspiration from elsewhere) to develop a successful widget without ever getting involved in any of the spreadsheets and gant charts.

    Maybe. I note in passing that, me not being a fan of spreadsheets or gant charts, the team responsible for SiteBuilder, Sign in, Blogs, Forums, Search, etc. have managed to build what I think are pretty good products without ever using either system. :-)

    27 Jul 2007, 23:03

  10. Is this about Macs and PCs?

    28 Jul 2007, 01:11

  11. John Dale

    > Is this about Macs and PCs?

    Not especially. I think some Apple products, notably the iPod, are good examples of products where the “What” question has clearly been worked on very hard (and Steve Jobs has a reputation as somebody who has a very clear vision of how he sees his products), but I’m not trying to compare one product with another.

    28 Jul 2007, 07:58

  12. A lot depends on the maturity of the product.

    At the beginning everyone is unclear about customer requirements. So success comes to those firms which spend a lot of time thinking about them (type B). Later, after millions of hours have been spent by people working on and using the product, customer requirements are well understood. The only differences between the various brands, as far as most customers are concerned, are price and reliability, so success comes to those firms which deliver best on those attributes (type A).

    31 Jul 2007, 10:48

  13. The Time ran an lengthy article on Bill Gates (Mr. A), who was actually friends with the guy who co-founded Apple (Mr. B). Now, Gates is clearly richer than whoever owns and runs Apple; but as companies go, Apple sees far more hope and future for development and subsequent returns of any investments. Technologies are developing really fast, so if the pretend-companies you are talking about are both involved in the industry of high-tech, then I’d say innovation and ideas would fly a company higher and farther. But if it’s an industry of, say, domestic cleaning products, then there’s very little room for innovation and quality and efficiency (that eventually spell reliability) will win the bigger share of markets.

    06 Aug 2007, 15:07


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