Making Work Better – Scott Berkun & The Future of Management

Scottberkun

Lots of Work, Some of it Not Terrible

I’ve had a LOT of jobs over the years.  Some of them have been:

  • Strawberry picker
  • Church janitor
  • Warehouse guy for a pottery company
  • Babysitter (terrible babysitter, more accurately)
  • Disc jockey, assistant music director, program director, station manager and sales manager at my campus radio station
  • Floor hand and feed mixer in a feed mill
  • Slave labour in the campus department of food services
  • Research assistant (one job photocopying journal articles, four jobs over 20 years doing actual research)
  • House painter
  • Construction worker remodelling a K-Mart
  • Office equipment salesman
  • Industrial water treatment consultant
  • Builder of an accounting system for a tannery
  • Manager of student recruitment at a polytechnic
  • Freelance consultant
  • Employee number 3 at a startup (Director of Sales and Marketing)
  • Teaching assistant and casual lecturer at a University

Right now, I have five positions that I currently hold listed on my LinkedIn Profile:

  1. Senior Lecturer in Innovation Management at The University of Queensland Business School
  2. Instigator at The Discipline of Innovation Blog
  3. Managing Editor of the journal Innovation: Management, Policy and Practice
  4. Mentor at iLab Accelerator (and also in the Mentoring4Growth Program)
  5. Consultant in UQBS Consulting

And I have a few other odds and ends going on too.  And with all of those jobs, with a few notable exceptions (including all of my current work!), the jobs have been lousy.  Or at least the management has been.

Yes, I’ve learned a huge amount in nearly all of them.  And all of these experiences have made significant contributions to who I am and how I view work.  But the average standard of management that I’ve encountered over the years hasn’t been great.  So one of my main objectives when I went into academia was to do work that would help make work better.

Making Work Better

How can we make work better?  We need to change the way we manage.  Steve Denning lays out the goals:

This management rejects the traditional sharp dichotomy between those activities that are commercial, calculating, manipulative, insufferably dull and tolerated only because they are thought to be either useful or lucrative, and those activities that actively generate genuine human pleasure, such as dance, poetry, music, art and drama. This management aims to be both financially and spiritually profitable, by generating widespread delightjoy, and happiness. It seeks to inspire both those who do work and those for whom work is done. It aspires to uplift the human spirit and unleash the creativity latent in every human being while also achieving more disciplined execution than traditional management. It is as passionately romantic as it is relentlessly operational, specific and practical.

That’s pretty aspirational, isn’t it?  But I agree with him – this is what we must aim for.

In his new book The Year Without Pants, Scott Berkun lays out some of the methods that might help us get there.

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is what I said about it in my review on Amazon:

If you want to understand how management really works, then this is an important book to read. Scott Berkun ditched his consultant/writer hat and went back on to the management frontline for a little over a year with WordPress.com, and this book reports on what he learned. Berkun is a terrific writer, and I find him worth reading even on topics that I find inherently less interesting. However, there is nothing uninteresting about this – he goes right to the heart of what makes good managers.

For me, there are three big ideas in this book:

1. You can only evaluate management in the context of culture. Here is a quote from the book that outlines this issue: “I’m certain that to learn from a place, you have to study how its culture functions. A great fallacy born from the failure to study culture is the assumption that you can take a practice from one culture and simply jam it into another and expect similar results. Much of what bad managers do is assume their job is simply to find new things to jam and new places to jam them into, without ever believing they need to understand how the system–the system of people known as culture–works.” This explains the title of the book – it references an inside joke within his team. I can see why he would use this as a title, but I’m not sure it reflects the content or quality of the book. However, within the WordPress,com culture, it makes perfect sense…

2. Experimentation is an essential management skill. Berkun experiments throughout his time at WordPress.com. This is a central skill for innovating, and it is not practiced widely enough. He has great insights into the roles that data and judgement play in managing, and how experimenting and learning can contribute to both.

3. How do you manage if everyone is a volunteer? One of the interesting features of WordPress.com is that it originated in a open source programming project. Everyone that works on such a project is a volunteer, and this requires a much different management style than the more traditional command and control approach. Berkun’s time at WordPress.com was part of a big experiment – introducing work teams and hierarchy into an open source style culture. The outcomes tell us a lot about how to manage effectively.

Scott Berkun has a great business mind, and he is a very engaging writer. This is an important piece of work, and if you are interested in what good management looks like and how it might be changing, you should read this book.

If you’d like a more traditional review, Bob Sutton’s is excellent.

We’re not at a point yet where every job can fit Denning’s goals.  But surely we should be aiming for that, shouldn’t we?  In addition to the points I outlined in my review, it is also important for people to have autonomy, even if we have to seize it ourselves.

The Year Without Pants gives us a starting point at least. And making work better is worthwhile work for us to do.

 

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Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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9 thoughts on “Making Work Better – Scott Berkun & The Future of Management

    • I’m curious to hear what you think of it Heath. You’re actually in a position to take advantage of some of the ideas in it – more than others with larger firms & more locked-in business models…