Choosing Our Issues
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Learning cannot be disassociated from action.”

-- Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

“The most important measures are both unknown and unknowable.”

-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Choosing Our Issues by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine May 2004

I recently received an e-mail from a university student named Bryon. He wanted my opinion about the most significant issues in business today and in the future. After giving his question some thought, I sent him the following response that will hopefully make a difference.

Our ways of thinking lead to the ways we define and prioritize problems. Currently, I do not feel that we are looking at the right issues in many cases. For example, deforestation and the business growth of China are major issues if you look as few as ten years out, but neither seem to be on the general populations' radar screen. Instead, who won the Academy Awards and what's happening on reality television seem to be the hot topics.

The time frame we use to peer forward is important because in essence we are running mental simulations when we forecast the future, using the systems we are aware of to produce the expected results. Most people can't think in terms of systems because they are conditioned to respond reactively to events. Additionally, most people struggle to think forward more than a year or so when they do try to prognosticate.

Over the past 100 years, we have set in motion some powerful systems, and we have yet to realize the types of results they will ultimately produce over the long term. Author Peter Senge, of The Fifth Discipline fame, stated that we need to learn to think and interact differently if we want a sustainable future. The authors of the book Beyond the Limits propose that we may have only a generation or two left if we don't learn to think differently and alter the systems that are currently in motion.

In his e-mail, Bryon also asked me "How will these prevailing issues shape the direction of management?" The phrasing he chose to use is ironic in the sense that it assumes that we allow issues to shape management, as opposed to management shaping the issues. Management designs and fuels the systems the we use to produce results, whether they do it consciously or subconsciously. If a given issue is not a result in itself, it is a by-product of a system's output. In other words, we create our own issues whether we recognize them as such or not. For example, management designs and fuels a company's compensation system. A compensation system shapes employee beliefs about what is important and what is not, which in turn affects daily job performance.

Unfortunately, the human ego is our primary liability. It blinds us to learning more about ourselves and others, and it gives us a false sense of security. Worst of all, it reflects the attitude that we are somehow better than others. As technology shapes the role of the manager, taking away the need for an all-knowing decision maker who sits in meetings or an office all day, these people will become unable to continue to change their business systems to protect themselves. Expect to see a surge in early retirements over the next five years.

As baby boomers retire from management in masse, we will see a shift in management style over the next 10 to 15 years. Big generational battles will come into play as established, but largely non-value added, leaders are ousted by seemingly young whippersnappers with superior information, insight, and OODA loops. I hope that this shift brings a focus back to workplace fairness and leads to a prevailing culture in which people are valued for the unique properties they bring to work.

These issues represent the key systems that are churning away, producing results that we may or may not be aware of yet. Results lead to new issues, which are results in their own right. To predict issues, you must also predict the human behavior that will follow a given system output. To do that requires making assumptions about the human condition. Will people change their behaviors? What will it take to initiate such a thought revolution in management?

We may not have to wait even ten years to find out.

Keep improving!!

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