That’s not part of my job description… or is it?

When I saw the picture I couldn’t help the chuckle and the thought… “Seriously?! What kind of person would do that?!” The original caption on Instagram was “Winner of the ‘Not my job’ award” and it got me thinking about the applications of this thought process we see every day in corporate life. More importantly, it got me asking why… Why do some people stick rigidly to the notion of a “job description”, and what is it that makes some more willing than others to push through and challenge or test the boundaries of their roles.

And if you happen to manage people, this post is for you. I know you’re busy, so here’s the punch line — the reason why someone would produce the handy work in that picture is… you. I’ll elaborate below, and I’m not ignoring the fact that company culture, industry, compensation and incentives may play a role. I will however make some assumptions about you — if you are reading this post there is a very good chance you are not the manager of the highway maintenance crew… you are with some fair certainty one of my colleagues in the high-tech and knowledge work field, you are comfortable with technology, and the closest you come to the line drawing exercise in the picture is working on the alignment of graphs and bullet points on your PowerPoint slides (a topic for further ranting soon).

Let’s have a closer look at the image. The first impression that occurred to me was “wow… how lazy is that person?” and then I was reminded of the quote attributed to Bill Gates “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it”. When you think about it, a lazy person would have just kept the straight line and plowed over the branch with the painting spray, perhaps painting the branch in the process. The painting nozzle is normally mounted on the side of a truck that could easily push through that obstacle. But if you enlarge the photo, you will see that just prior to the detour, and immediately after, the lines are near-perfectly straight. Except there is a wobble — a little to the right, a little to the left, and then the big right turn. A moment of vacillation and doubt as the obstacle approaches…

Some possible scenarios of that inner dialogue could be “Crap! I can’t stop… I should move it, but what if the highway cleaning union complains? What happens if I stop and remove the obstacle? Will this impact my mileage painted per day? I’m not going to get the job done on time! Who cares about straight lines anyways?”. If I bring this to the corporate speak, that inner dialogue could be “I don’t own that part of the project… what if the other team disagrees with the changes? It could take a while to get them on board! If I have to reach out to someone and re-plan the work my metrics will go red… It’ll be ok, it’s a rare scenario, customers won’t notice anyways… we have to launch on time”… Or worse… “Screw it, who cares?!”. Does any of that ring a bell?

The present system of organizations divided neatly across vertical “functions” and stacked up with layers of “increasing responsibility” as you get to the top is a remnant of what was the killer app in the 19th century. It’s the life’s work of Frederick Winslow Taylor and published in his book “Principles of Scientific Management”, which transformed the industrial revolution era with ever increasing efficiency. Taylor’s fundamental principle was that any process could be broken down into individual steps that could be performed with ever-increasing mechanical efficiency by non-specialized workers, and that management’s role was to measure, control and modify to deliver efficiency gains.

There is no denying that scientific management greatly advanced the industrial production capacity and efficiency and it’s still applied to this day. But in this 21st century world of fast flowing information, experience as a competitive differentiator and ever increasing volatility and ambiguity in markets, imagine what would happen if every decision required that management does the thinking, according to the Taylorean reductionist principles? In his model, the CEO or the General Manager are the first levels in which someone has an end-to-end view and is able to bring separate siloes together… Most individual contributors and 1st level managers live in what is called reductionist ignorance — focused only on the metrics and results of their individual part of the process.

And this is where the direct manager makes the biggest difference. In this new world of increased communication and collaboration it is your job to instill in your people the curiosity, the empowerment and the encouragement to think systemically… to think about the end result for the customer or the shareholder and look at the problem holistically. And then bring others along with you in the process of solving and delivering. The worst-case scenario of the inner dialogue above, the “Screw it, who cares?!” line is the leading cause of inefficiency in the 21st century information worker — it’s called disengagement. When people feel like a cog in a big machine, a non-specialized automaton… that’s what you get — disengagement.

The number one job of a manager these days is to make sure he or she is enabling the talent they’ve been entrusted with to deliver the greatest impact. And the likelihood of that is magnified if people are engaged — they trust you, because you model the values they believe in. They respect you, because you treat them with respect. And they will push beyond the boundaries of their roles, because they know you care deeply about delivering meaningful results that benefit the customer and the shareholder and that you too will push the boundaries and back them up. In short… they will act like owners because you act like an owner… And if you are the owner of the business… what is your job description?

And what if you are not a manager and you read all the way down here? First and foremost, thank you! I hope this was helpful. And I would like you to think like an owner… and have a direct conversation with your manager about what you expect him or her to model, do and support. Then go reach out beyond your organization and build an awareness of who the people are and how you can bring them along with you to continue to push for better products, services, experiences and results! And if you are thinking like an owner and leading across the company and your management doesn’t agree with you… come talk to me… I may have a job for you.

Now… if you got to this point and you are in fact the manager of the highway maintenance crew, I hope you got some value out of the post as well, and I am extremely curious about how you got to this blog. It’s a wonderful networked world out there… Thanks for reading and let me know what you think!

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