Peter Drucker is the most-read author on modern management theory. Drucker, an ageing California-based immigrant, is regarded as a philosopher with depth, simplicity and an uncanny ability to anticipate future. Peter Senge, a professor at MIT, is acclaimed as a thinker with high impact. His seminal work, The Fifth Discipline, brought into focus the importance of systems theory to modern-day managers. I remain in awe of both men as much as I am surprised how few Indians are aware of both the Peters.
Some time back, I came across a video conversation between Peter Drucker and Peter Senge. The two Peters talked about managing in difficult times. In this instalment of Arbor Mentis, I am going to talk about four important lines of thought that touched me. Drucker, who talked in most part, highlighted the concepts of planned abandonment, need to focus on opportunities, preserving values and learning from non-profit organisations. The concept of planned abandonment deals with ‘letting go’. It is a difficult thing for many designers and architects of products, services, or even business models. According to him, you have to move on when things look 80% complete. Similarly, you need to destroy your own creation when everything is looking just perfect. Creative people and technologists become so attached to their creation that it becomes their life. In time, it becomes a deadly embrace.
The next concept is about focussing on the opportunity, not on the problem. An example Drucker gives is how a mediocre orchestra like the Chicago Philharmonic became world class in the hands of a new conductor. Drucker went to check the man out. When asked how he managed to uplift the standard, he said that the gap between the excellent people in any organisation, and those who are average is always constant. So the trick is to raise the level of the top performers, and, automatically, the overall performance level moves up. Peter Senge gives his own example of how every teacher has a problem student who is disinterested in the class. The teacher often makes it his or her personal challenge to reform this one student. Inordinate amount of finite energy is focussed on the problem student at the cost of the more attentive ones. The trick is to recognise where the natural flow of energy is, and go with it.
Next, Drucker talks about values. But first we must understand that most of the time, we are really dealing with the challenges of growth. However, growth of any kind is inherently destructive. It happens because of the tension between centripetal forces of continuity and centrifugal forces of change. The secret, according to Drucker, is in emulating nature. Nature found out early on that the way to create vast amounts of change is to find out a core of constant values, and keep spinning around it. For example, nature created animals on the principle of polar symmetry. Physically, we are all symmetric at the poles. Once nature found out about the power of polar symmetry, it kept that as a constant value and created a two-legged animal, a four-legged animal and even a centipede around it. The number of times a heart beats in a human being and a salamander is constant. Keeping that value as constant, nature has been able to create endless variations of life forms around it. In an organisation’s context, the polar symmetry or the heartbeat is the value system. Once we get that right, it is possible to grow without getting destroyed.
Finally, Drucker talks about learning from non-profit organisations. It is about volunteerism. The industrial and post-industrial workplaces use a number of monetary instruments to motivate employees. Stock options and bonuses work only in good times; they backfire in bad. The key is to learn from voluntary organisations, where people give their best even without any of these. Drucker is convinced that ‘for profit’ organisations have more to learn from ‘not for profit’ organisations than the other way round.