Healing the Wounds of the Assembly Line with Feedback Loops and Doctrine

Often, the focus on the ideal of the cross-functional, interdisciplinary, extroverted worker results in questions being asked which the average employee is insufficiently skilled to answer. In her book Quiet, Susan Cain cites the example of one of her research technical interviewees' recollection of a 'murder board,' a panel of decision-makers whom engineers had to face in order to get their new ideas considered for funding and other resources. One can imagine a hard-faced panel of besuited men tearing down the brilliant if meek engineer with the smug expressions of a young MBA grad: "What's your marketing plan!," they might shout, "Has legal signed off on this?!?" echoing off cold concrete walls with drill-sergeant shrillness.  Employees walking by the steel door to the interrogation room were surely discouraged from bringing their own ideas lest they, too, be pressed for impossible answers under the harsh glare of a single, dangling light bulb and the suits' cleanly-shaven faces. But why should an engineer trained in quantum mechanics or semiconductor optimization be expected to have all these answers—in three sentences or less—just to suggest a potentially good idea?

The Specialist vs. the Generalist

There is a conflict in the organizational model between last century's focus on intense specialization, wherein one was not just a marketing professional, but a vertical-specific, digital media marketing project coordinator for the Southwestern U.S. region. As the hyper-specialization and process focus mainstreamed through countless business books like Michael Gerber's The E-Myth Revisited as a response to the rapidly-increasing complexity of the business environment, we built in habits and structures designed to avoid looking at the big picture, instead hyperfocusing for efficiency's sake—at the technician's level. Yet, at the same time, it was becoming clear that critical thinking and interdisciplinary understanding were the most-valued characteristics (at least, after charisma) for the leadership echelon of senior managers and executives. In other words, we bred in a still-widening gap in the work styles of the technician and manager/executive: technicians were trained to follow orders and processes, while managers and executives were expected to demand metrics-backed, researched, cross-functional solutions—which demanded a nearly-impossible knowledge of the entire business. 

Loss of Insight: the Assembly Line's Lack of Feedback

The thinking behind this assembly-line-meets-liberal-arts business environment were understandable, if incomplete. The assembly-line model, argued Model T-maker Ford and E-Myth Gerber, made the front-line employee both less of a risk to the company and perhaps even happier, not forced to carry the stress of constantly improvising. This left the manager to enforce smooth functioning of the system with occasional insights into potential improvement, so that the executive or entrepreneur can stay focused on strategic relationships and new major deals. What was lost, though, is the ability for the organization's leaders to hear new ideas from their workers, to detect insights and innovations from the front line—especially if those workers weren't gregarious, MBA types. 

Perhaps the loss of this potential insight wasn't seen as particularly big, or was deemed a necessary casualty in the quest for being a larger, more profitable organization. Historically, it may have seemed too easy to discount a less-educated frontline workforce in comparison to the polished, degreed and pedigreed executive class. Now, though, the average internet-connected worker can access almost as much market intelligence and trends research as a CEO ten staff layers above them can—and probably has more time to do so. They might see insights from customers a CEO never sees, and have more access to make an inferential leap to the brilliant idea their CEO is hungering for. In an organization like a fast-food chain, a retail conglomerate, or a mobile phone service, though, that employee might never be asked for that kind of input. And if they suggest an insight which could save the company money and time, they'll likely be challenged with the business-feasibility-check 'murder board' Cain describes in Quiet, and, failing to answer everything correctly, be discounted in what may even be framed as a well-intentioned effort to separate signal from noise in a large company. The loss, however, of both the potentially brilliant idea not yet made feasible through supportive planning, and the motivation of the employee first bringing it, is hard to value. 

Translation, Doctrine and Feedback Based in Critical Thinking

This is where translation becomes necessary: granting assistance to the technical or creative worker as they attempt to present their concepts to the larger organization. If they are too divorced from the organization's strategy, they will consistently provide unusable ideas and will eventually be chastised, ignored, or removed from their positions. And yet, if they are too closely managed, the tendency is towards impossibly-regimented work which leaves no space for improvisation and invites the worker to a 'checked-out' following of process without access to the context information required for critical thinking and innovation. This is where the concept of what Mark Bonchek calls 'doctrine' enters—it's the layer between strategy and plans which allow the team member to have autonomy with acceptable improvisation in the face of changing circumstances. Doctrine is the evolving codification of the style and thought going into executive decision-making so that the wisdom present there can be replicated and built upon. 

Other methods for translation pair with the concept of doctrine, too, and include the tried-and-true elements of organizational development as well as cultural supports. Check for the presence of the following to ensure your teams have the translation support they need: 

  • Clearly-articulated vision (destination), strategy (high-level roadmap), doctrine (guidelines for acceptable improvisation), plans and project management
  • Formal and informal feedback loops to management and/or other parts of the organization
  • Formal and informal technical translators to ensure decision-makers understand the feasibility of the decisions they are making and that technicians understand the business issues at hand
  • Decision-making practices which allow for nuanced responses to complex problems—in other words, where possible, decisions and input into decisions are requested with lead time so that critical thinking and coordination may be applied

Finally, it's important to remember that, in the New Normal of networked, open, constantly-evolving organizations, the process of translation is not a set-it-and-forget-it concept, but a practice. Good luck!