Leading A Distributed Workforce: Keys From Collins, Christensen, Drucker And Deming

For advice on how to catch up to the future of work—and do it well—consider the timeless insights of the masters of management theory.

There’s a case to be made that Covid-19 has caused the future to accelerate by 5 to 7 years. Suddenly, for many companies, the future of work—virtual, distributed, unbounded by geography and time—has arrived. We’re all adapting and trying to catch up.

How do you do it? And more importantly, how do your company’s leaders do it?

One way is to go back to the timeless insights of the masters of management theory. Reviewing the management thought leaders of the last hundred or so years reveals a host of learnable and adaptable concepts that remain valid for the challenges leaders are facing today. Even more important, they provoke useful questions for corporate leaders that are just as relevant today as they were the day they were published.

I pulled together a quick snapshot from a few of the most well-known of them, as well as some useful questions provoked by their work that are worth asking at your next board or management meeting. Hopefully you’ll find them useful:

Frederick Winslow Taylor

Key Takeaway: Good communication from management to teams, with clearly defined tasks and expectations, is essential.

Taylor revolutionized the idea of scientific management in 1911 in his work The Principles of Scientific ManagementHis focus on workplace efficiency is still utilized today.

He believed that workers without clarity and organization were not productive. As a result, he examined every job so that there was a clear expectation an employee’s workload. He preached that each part of an employee’s work should be analyzed in a scientific way, and then the work will be “devised in the best and most efficient method.” The amount of work is analyzed for each job to set a standard for how much work an employee is expected to do each day.

He also established that it is the role of management to determine the job best suited for each employee and to train them in order to do the task productively. This includes managers communicating and checking in on their teams to ensure this.

Questions to Consider:

• Have you reevaluated the expectations between managers and their teams while they are not in the same physical space? Have you communicated those expectations? Have managers?

• Have you re-evaluated the process/nature of the work you are expecting your employees to do in a rigorous way? Have you made sure employees are clear on what needs to be done?

• Do they know what is expected of them, what it means to succeed in this new environment? How that will be measured and monitored?

Henry Ford

Key Takeaways: Continuity of production; Motivate employees to exert their maximum effort

After introducing Ford’s Model T in 1908, Henry Ford wanted to increased production to satisfy growing demand, lowering the price so everybody American was able to afford a car. His solution: The assembly line.

Ford broke down the assembly of the Model T into 84 specific tasks. If each worker had one discrete task to focus on, then the production could be even faster. Ford hired Taylor to maximize the efficiency of those jobs. He also built machines capable of stamping out parts more quickly than humans.

Ford’s assembly line was inspired by a slaughterhouse in Chicago. Using conveyer belts and other systems, workers were able to build motors and transmissions at a continuous—and much higher—rate. Their efficient and continuous assembly line allowed them to reduce the price of the Model T to $269 in 1922. By 1924, more than half of the 24 million vehicles driven in America were Fords.

While he was able to standardize production, standardizing the work force was more difficult. In order to find workers to perform the same repetitive task day after day, he increased wages to $5 a day, double the average factory wage at the time.

Questions to Consider

• Have you clearly defined systems, tasks and continuity of work in this new environment? Are your employees clear on how work is to be conducted, and what role their efforts play in the larger picture?

• Are you re-focused on the right incentives to motivate your employees to work their hardest? Is it wages? Job security? A focus on purpose? Implementing ESG programs? Flexibility? How do you know these are the right incentives to drive high performance?

Edward Deming

Key Takeaways: Appreciation the system to run it most efficiently; Understand and prepare for variation

Following World War II, W. Edward Deming went to Japan as an adviser to the Japanese Census. He transformed Japanese manufacturing through his Theory of Profound Knowledge, (documented in his 1986 book Out of Crisis).

Deming believed his theory would allow for transformation of individuals within a company. He defined four parts, that, if understood and applied, would generate a “better leadership culture” and improve the efficiency of a company:

• Appreciation for a System – A business is a system. Every part of the business is interrelated. Therefore, company leaders must truly understand and be invested into the system that you are manage, and how everything coexists.

• Knowledge about Variation – There are two types of variation: common cause and special cause. Common causes are results from within the system and can be predicted. Special causes are variations that are from outside the system. These are unexpected and cannot be predicted.

• Theory of Knowledge – Without theory, there is no knowledge. By theorizing, you are generating predications and insights beyond just an understanding.

• Understanding of Psychology – Within the system of business, there are interrelated people that make it up. It is important to understand personally as individuals that work for you in order to lead them the most efficiently.

Questions to Consider:

• Do your leaders understand how all the parts of the system work together in this new environment? Are they clear on not just their goals, but the goals of other leaders, and the purpose of those goals?

• How might the work vary due to Coronavirus? What’s controllable? What’s likely outside the company’s control? What provisions/adaptations might be put in place to help buffer operations?

• Are your workers clear about the theory behind the work, especially at a time of great change and uncertainty? How can you help reinforce this among leadership team members, and their reports?

Peter Drucker

Key Takeaways: Manage people not things; Understand your employee

One of Drucker’s big ideas was that management was a “liberal art” and efficient managers needed a broad range of knowledge on subjects as varied as psychology, science—and even religion.

“Management deals with people, their values, their growth and development—and this makes it a humanity,” Drucker wrore in his 1988 book The New Realities. “So does its concern with, and impact on, social structure and the community. Indeed… management is deeply involved in spiritual concerns—the nature of man, good and evil,”.

“Managers draw on all the knowledge and insights of the humanities and the social sciences—on psychology and philosophy, on economics and on history, on the physical sciences and on ethics.”

His idea was that in order to be efficient as a manager, you must understand what drives and motivates your employees, aka human beings.

Questions to Consider:

• In a time when distributed work is causing a reduction in direct, in-person social interactions to diminish, how have your managers adapted? How do they know how to adapt? Do they know what is expected of them?

• Has your company researched and documented emerging best practices for leadership in this new, virtual workplace? Has your company developed any training programs to help front-line managers? Who is responsible for building effectiveness in this changed environment?

Clayton Christensen

Key Takeaway: Play the game differently.

In 1995, the late Clayton Christensen introduced his concept of “disruptive innovation” in a Harvard Business Review article, one of the most quoted and impactful business theories of the last century. His theory explained how arrogant, status-quo companies are pushed out the market by small and emerging startups that provide a better, and sometimes obvious, solution to consumers. “Disruption comes from playing the game differently,” he said.

In an article for Forbes in 2007, he boiled down his work: “In industry after industry, companies have created growth by following—explicitly or implicitly—the patterns of disruptive innovation. Disruptors create growth by redefining performance. They either bring a simple, cheap solution to the low end of an established market or enable ‘nonconsumers’ to solve pressing problems.”

“A successful disruptor masters the art of trade-offs,” he said. “Their offering isn’t better along traditional performance dimensions. In fact, it’s typically just good enough along dimensions that historically mattered in a mainstream market. A disruptor redefines the notion of performance by pulling an overlooked innovation lever. Simplicity. Convenience. Accessibility. Affordability. All of these are hallmarks of disruptive innovation.”

Questions to Consider:

• Are you seeking enough opportunity in the crisis? Are you tracking how societal behaviors will likely change as a result of this time, and how you might take advantage of those changes to grow your business? What do your customers want? How do you know? Who is responsible for finding out?

• What are you doing to increase simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability for your existing products and services? Who in your organization has been tasked with exploring these changes?

• Within your own company, what are you doing to simplicity, convenience, accessibility and affordability for your distributed workforce? What needs to go back to “normal” and what does not? What can you do now that you couldn’t do before? How can you document the improvements, and make them even simpler, more convenient, more accessible and cheaper?

Jim Collins

Key Takeaway: Have the right people in the right seats on the bus

This may be the most important discussion of all. Collins, one of the most admired management thinkers all time, analyzed more than 1,400 companies for his classic Good to Great, looking for the key traits that helped companies like Fannie Mae, Kimberly-Clark, and Nucor Corp. make the leap from also-rans to the front of the pack.

Lesson one: “Start by getting the right people on the bus (your company), the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.”

As he famously put it: “If you begin with ‘who,’ rather than ‘what,’ you can more easily adapt to a changing world. If people join the bus primarily because of where it is going, what happens if you get ten miles down the road and you need to change direction? You’ve got a problem. But if people are on the bus because of who else is on the bus, then it’s much easier to change direction.

“Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. The right people don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up; they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of creating something great.”

Questions to Consider:

• Do you have the right people on your bus? Are they in the right seats? How do you know?

• If you’re facing the need for furloughs, layoffs or other changes in personnel, do you know who you should keep? How do you know? What is the mechanism for finding out?


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