by: Steve Denning
At the close of the Drucker Forum in Vienna, Austria, last week, Clay Christensen made some important remarks as to how management can advance. (These remarks came after my summary, published here earlier this week.) He suggested that the impact of the good ideas being discussed at the Drucker Forum was hampered by differences in language and terminology. With so many good ideas, it was hard to make sense of them. What if, Christensen asked, these thought leaders could learn to speak in the same language with common terminology?
Christensen’s remarks are worth quoting in full:
A number of years ago, one of my MBA students, who was graduating, helped me write a book, called Disrupting Class. It was a book examining why American schools are struggling to improve. It was a good book, not a great book. Michael Horn, my co-author, was at a conference where the people there were talking about how to improve our schools. He observed that as usual in these kinds of situations, the participants were talking past each other. Everybody seemed to have a good idea. But there were so many good ideas that in the end, the only thing that they could remember about the meeting was that there were a lot of good ideas.
But there was a man at that conference named Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush had been the governor of Florida. He had finished his term and he had decided to dedicate his life from that point on to improving our schools. And he took my co-author, Michael Horn, over to the side at the end of the meeting and said, “Michael, you have a concept in your presentation that’s called ‘child-centered learning.’” What we had done in our book was to say that online learning helps teachers how to teach students better, because it gives them the flexibility to teach each child in a way that the child is wired to learn. We decided to call that ‘child centered learning.’
So Jeb Bush said, “I’ve got some good ideas. But that is a really good idea. Would you mind if I just take that slide out of your presentation and can I use it in my presentation?”
And Michael Horn said. “Governor Bush, you actually have three slides in your presentation. The language there is so much better than mine. Would you mind if I used those slides in my presentation?”
And so they did the switch. Now it turned out that Jeb Bush was a good friend of Governor Wise of West Virginia and Governor Hunt of North Carolina.
And you guys have been at these conferences where there is a cadence. There is just keynote after keynote. The governors were part of this cadence.
So Jeb Bush said, “Let’s go meet with Bob Wise of West Virginia and see if we can borrow some of his slides and maybe vice versa.” And they did the same thing with Governor Hunt.
And then they decided, “You know, why don’t we standardize on the concepts and the vocabulary.” So they all got together one weekend and presented to each other, using each other’s language.
And within just a couple of months, instead of Michael Horn standing out in the wilderness, and speaking his own language, and everyone else speaking in a different language, you had these four extraordinary people, acting as apostles of improving our schools. They were speaking the same language, over and over again.
And that’s how I feel at the end of this conference. My goodness, we have great ideas! But I am not sure that I can replicate what anybody said, because there are so many great ideas.
So I wanted to offer that you might do amongst yourselves what Michael Horn and Jeb Bush and Governors Wise and Hunt did.
Let’s take the best of each other’s ideas and the best of each other’s language and the best of each other’s ways of communicating what we are thinking about. And in the process, we would be expanding the breadth of the ideas. I think we need to standardize what we have in mind. If we could focus and clarify our message, we would have a better impact.
Christensen was later asked by the chair of the Drucker Forum, Adi Ignatius, Editor in Chief of Harvard Business Review, as to why he was optimistic, given all the problems that management faces today. Christensen replied:
I am so optimistic… Some of the biggest problems that mankind has ever faced are right in front of us. The idea that there might not be growth in the future: what a huge problem that is! And rather than despairing about these problems, here we have an opportunity with the best minds in the world to focus their capabilities on solving these problems.
Ignatius then asked Christensen what made him think that talent—both people and institutions—would rise to the challenge. Christensen replied:
When you see somebody under-performing, or missing an opportunity, or just screwing up, on occasion it’s because they don’t want to succeed. But most of the time, when they don’t do well, it’s because they don’t know how to do it. We’ve got a lot of people here who are trying to figure out how to teach people how to do some remarkable things. There are a lot of good things I have taken away from the discussions. The most important thing, I find, is that we have a great message. But if f we can focus the message, we can help people do things that they historically couldn’t do.
The parallel to the Agile Manifesto 2001
Christensen’s example of collaboration from education has an interesting parallel in the field of software development.
Towards the end of the 20th Century, a number of thought leaders in software development were pursuing and promoting what were then called “light weight processes.” These were processes aimed at solving the problem that most large-scale software projects were late, over budget and rife with quality problems: frequently projects were never even completed.
The exponents of these “lightweight processes” were pursuing their ideas under different labels and with slightly different emphases, but they shared a common understanding of the nature of the challenge—the need to move beyond big rigid plans and bureaucracy and instead pursue iterative development that led to continuous innovation with disciplined execution—and a common set of values that supported a different approach.
After a series of meetings over several years, seventeen of the exponents of these light-weight processes came together for a couple of days at the Snowbird ski resort in the Wasatch mountains of Utah. They were able to agree on a short document that articulated the values of an approach that all of the signatories could espouse, while still pursuing their own variants. The document was published on the Internet and became known as “the Agile Manifesto.”
The Agile Manifesto had an extraordinary effect. This short, simple and clear document succeeded in mobilizing a huge movement around the world with hundreds of thousands of software developers espousing Agile values in software development. Some of the light-weight approaches that were popular in 2001 have become less central, while others have become more widely used. Overall, the Agile Manifesto helped catalyze a vast movement for change, while encouraging experimentation and innovation to continue.
Martin Luther and the Colloquy of Marbury
Earlier this year, Christensen also suggested an analogy between the problems facing management today and the era of Martin Luther, back in the 16th Century. For instance, he wrote in Harvard Business Review in June 2014: “The orthodoxies governing finance are so entrenched that we almost need a modern-day Martin Luther to articulate the need for change.”
As it happens, Martin Luther might have made faster progress if he had adopted the more open-minded and collaborative approach that Christensen recommends. Thus in 1529, the German Prince Philip of Hesse saw potential in creating an alliance between the two Protestant leaders, Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, who were heading like-minded reform movements. Realizing the importance of a united Protestant front to fight the abuses of the entrenched Catholic elite, Prince Philip convened a meeting, now known as the infamous Colloquy of Marburg. At the gathering, Luther and Zwingli agreed on everything except one doctrinal issue: was Jesus Christ spiritually present at a mass? Zwingli asserted no, while Luther insisted yes. In the debate, Luther became so angry that he carved his rejection into a table in the meeting room.
So the Colloquy of Marburg broke down and the Protestant Reformation proceeded in a fragmented fashion for another hundred years. Doctrinal differences that in retrospect seem minuscule in comparison to the extensive common ground prevented a united Protestant front. With the wisdom of hindsight, we can see that if these leaders had been able to set aside their tiny doctrinal differences and explicitly recognize the broad issues on which they did agree, the Reformation could have moved much faster. The best had become the enemy of the good.
The challenge facing management today
So, Christensen suggests, that is the challenge facing management today. Will the thought leaders in management continue to pursue their remarkably similar ideas in a fragmented fashion with different language and terminology? Or will they respond to his call, learn from the experience of education and software development, and come together and agree on common language and terminology? If Christensen is right, the future of management depends on it.
About the Author
Steve Denning writes about radical management, leadership, innovation & narrative.
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