The principals of scientific management are aimed at efficiency and finding one best way to do something. By its nature this means reductionist thinking, breaking things down, streamlining, making things lean. Efficiency is king.
In his book, The One Best Way, Robert Kanigel writes that Frederick Taylor could be the most influential philosopher of the 20th century — scientific management has become the water and we are the fish. We have applied these philosophies in education, healthcare, social service systems and our own personal lives. Do you drive to work or the store the same way all the time? Of course! You go the one best way.
The purpose here is not to bash Taylor or efficiency. Both have made significant contributions to our world of work, society and “economies of scale”. The problem is that scientific management was conceived to quash innovation and experimentation – find one best way and repeat it over and over.
In a marketplace owned by the customer, innovation is both longed for and necessary. Innovation by its nature requires expansive acts. It demands experimentation and creative thinking, which means risks will be taken and mistakes will be made. Innovation and creativity demand open access to information, interaction and feedback, the antithesis of what Taylor demanded when he wrote The Principles of Scientific Management: “Under our system, the workman is told just what he is to do and how he is to do it. Any improvement which he makes upon orders given him is futile to success.”
Even today, that is the message disseminated in many workplaces: Managers figure things out, core workers do as they are told. Managers watch to “make sure” and core workers avoid scrutiny and getting caught in a ‘mistake.’
What gets lost in that dynamic is the benefit of collective thinking. At about the same time Taylor was developing and defending his principles, a man named Francis Galton was conducting research on the other side of the world that supports the power of many minds. In weight-judging competition at the annual show of the West of England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition in Plymouth, people were given the chance to guess the weight of an ox after slaughter and dressing. Those who guessed most successfully received prizes.While no one correctly guessed its exact weight — 1197 pounds — the average of the 800 attempts was only one pound off: 1198 pounds.
Ever so slowly organizations are beginning to wake up to the simple truth illustrated in this study and many since — the collective possesses far greater wisdom than any individual. James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, says three things are necessary to harvest collective wisdom.
- Organizations need a way to aggregate many individual judgments to produce collective wisdom. One example of is using whole system, large group engagement for deliberating and resolving difficult issues.
- The group benefits from diversity, which allows people to look at a problem with multiple perspectives. Bringing customers, suppliers, interested third parties and radical thinkers into deliberation processes is a way to achieve maximum diversity
- People should be encouraged to think for themselves rather than constantly taking cues from each other. Authentic conversations help create a culture of informed collaboration where mistakes are seen as learning experiences and differences are valued.
When many perspectives are valued over the one, rather than imposing one perspective on the many, the organization will begin seeing the fruits of collective wisdom.