August 18, 2016
Editor's Choice: Stop Spending, Start Managing: Strategies to Transform Wasteful Habits
Stop Spending, Start Managing: Strategies to Transform Wasteful Habits by Tanya Menon & Leigh Thompson, Harvard Business Review Press, 208 pages, $30.00, Hardcover, August 2016, ISBN 9781422143025
Time, effort, and money are the primary resources we have to deploy in business. An open mind and bias toward action are exactly what you want in a leader. But, sometimes, the result of combining those two things can add up instead of add value.
That is because not all action gets traction, and when it doesn’t it creates corporate waste. There are a lot of proverbial spinning wheels in corporate America, and the lack of progress on persistent problems not only frustrates managers, it can derail entire organizations. Borrowing a metaphor from engineering throughout the book, they stress the importance of parsing meaningful signals of why problems are occurring from the background noise—“incomplete or incorrect understanding of their causes.”
Stop Spending, Start Managing is about people problems, perhaps the most intractable kinds of problem any manager faces, and those that most affect productivity. I should mention up front that the title of the book is a bit of a misnomer. The authors do not encourage managers to be parsimonious, but rather teach them to be more productive and profitable with the money they invest into the company so that it helps solve problems in the organization rather than extend and exacerbate them.
In the course of their research and on-the-ground consultations (which included questioning over one thousand managers and executives), Menon and Thompson found there were five distinct “spending traps” that leaders fall into—and an unexpected element of all five:
We were … struck by one commonality. These spending traps did not emerge from people’s weaknesses, lack of expertise, or character flaws but were often the direct result of many of the talents and skills that had allowed them to excel in so many other situations.
In a way, then, the authors key insight is that you must “tame your talents” at times to be an effective manager. The apparent irony in that idea will fade as you traverse the next five chapters, each devoted to one of the spending traps—The Expertise Trap, The Winner’s Trap, The Agreement Trap, The Communication Trap, and The Macromanagement Trap—and come to understand that the qualities that led you to a position of influence aren’t necessarily as effective when actually wielding it.
What each trap does is obscure critical signals with the noise of our preconceptions or previous successes. Perhaps the greatest skill a manager can develop is uncovering the real underlying problem and addressing it—in distinguishing the signal from the noise, and only investing in the former. That requires slowing down enough to overcome our bias toward our own expertise, competitive spirit, desire to be liked, communication, and delegation of responsibility. It requires you to “shift from automatic to manual” to truly understand how the engine of your organization works, and how to shift gears. It is being able to amplify that signal and make it clear to everyone in the organization.
It will require a great deal of self-examination, both as a manager and an organization, to understand which traps you may be falling into, but the authors offer simple tools, clear explanations, and precise examples throughout the book to help you with that process. They explain, in detail, exactly how and why we fall into each of these traps, and recommend specific behaviors to avoid them, behaviors which you can amplify throughout the company. When describing the benefits of avoiding “The Agreement Trap,” the authors tell us that:
When managers embrace rather than avoid conflict and speak up rather than quiet down, they empower others to do the same.
Most managers concern themselves with conflict-resolution. Menon and Thompson encourage us to embrace and encourage conflict, to make conflict deliberate rather than debilitating, to make the social contract in the workplace more explicit rather than implied and uncertain.
In an age of telecommuting, information sharing technology, and big data collection, it is easy to forget the importance of the physical space your traverse everyday and the crucial role serendipity still plays in gathering a good signal. Speaking of “The Communications Trap” and how to avoid it, the authors note that when they ask executives where the most important conversation or interaction they’ve had in the past month occurred, “they rarely mention technology enabled communications” like e-mail, conference call, or social media:
And, almost without exception, they do not mention formal meetings, committees, or task forces either. Instead, we’ve discovered that their key breakthroughs most likely result from chance meetings: during cigarette breaks, coffee breaks, and even bathroom breaks! In fact, even nonsmokers tell us that they go on “smoke breaks” because the smokers “know everything.”
The habit they’re encouraging you to take up here is not smoking, but rather making sure that you’re network is as unpredictable and inhomogeneous as any smokers is, that it brings in people and perspectives from as many departments and levels of the company as possible. One way to do that is to simply “change your footpath at work.” Just fifteen minutes a day walking a route you don’t usually take, or using a different staircase, elevator, or bathroom is probably enough to begin getting outside of your usual network to spark unplanned interactions and conversations that can provide insights into the organization that no consultant or study would ever uncover.
Now think of your email inbox, internal messaging technology, and online life in general at work. How much time do you dedicate to that every day, and how often does it lead to effective, insightful communication? How much does it just contribute to the noise and over-communication that plagues our everyday work life? Can you spare fifteen minutes of that time to literally walk a different path at work each day?
Which speaks to the importance of how we design our offices and workspaces, which they touch on in the chapter on “The Macromanagement Trap.” Among other things, they discuss the importance of properly designed teams and work space.
The problem is that companies create false choices between individual work and group work, when they should be improving how they deploy both. What’s needed is a flexible transition between the cave (private space) and the commons (public space).
It’s about providing the environment and coordination needed to facilitate people’s ability to do their best work. We all know about the dangers and daily annoyances of micromanagement. Menon and Thompson are the first that I’ve read calling our attention to the real dangers of macromanagment. And that is what I love most about Stop Spending, Start Managing—it questions conventional wisdom and turns it on its head. It is a myth-buster and a problem solver. And as it does so, it will prompt you to think about how to invest more wisely in your business and make the most out of the resources you have at your disposal, and help you build an environment in which everyone in your organization can do the same.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.