Saying goodbye to Henry Ford: seven areas where you could modernise your business


In decades gone by, businesses sometimes set the trends for society. Fast forward to today where things move so fast that businesses are having to catch up with society. Even though most CEOs would not want to admit it, their organisations probably still look and operate far too much like a system designed for Henry Ford’s time, not for the world of 2020 and beyond.

How can you keep up? Here is a quick guide to the seven key domains where business leaders need to conduct brutally self-aware audits:

1. Rules

Worst: Creating a system of rules and processes to ensure people do what they’re told.

Best: Creating a ‘tight loose’ system with very few rules, so that people can perform to their full potential.

Roughly a century ago, Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ told us that employees shouldn’t think, but rather should follow set procedures. It turns out that this view is anything but scientific. Rather, it utterly suppresses the value to be generated by the greatest asset at your disposal.

The acid test: Ask yourself, “Are people here working to the full potential of which they are capable?”

2. The role of people

Worst: Treating people like machines or expecting them to behave like computers.

Best: Letting computers do the computing. Getting people to act like people, using their capacity for empathy, creativity and collaboration.

Anything that can be proceduralised is inevitably done better be a computer. Deep machine learning now enables this to occur overnight, so why bother trying to do it through people? They have much greater value to add than pretending to be an abacus.

The acid test: Ask yourself, “Are people here focused on doing things that only people can do?”

3. Technology

Worst: Treating technology as a cost centre and striving to stay in touch with the market

Best: Finding ways to leapfrog on technology, creating an exponential organisation which creates value at a materially different level from what preceded that technology

More than ever before, the top echelons of the Fortune 500 are packed with technology organisations, often smaller in employee numbers but massive in market capitalisation. Why? Because they have something in common: they have used technology to create a new business model and revolutionise an industry. And investors recognise that this is massively valuable.

The acid test: Ask yourself, “Are we looking for ways that technology could create an entirely new business model for our industry?”

4. Connection with society

Worst: Treating matters such as corporate social responsibility, employee well-being, etc as add-ons that are good for the brand.

Best: Having an integrated organisational system that includes each employee as a whole person.

Some time in the last decade or so, social good moved from a fringe concept to something that the average person considers when buying groceries, travelling, eating out or consuming resources. And it moved from something they would primarily do outside of work, to something they expected would happen in their workplace – because their employee cared about it too.

The acid test: Ask yourself, “Is our approach to social good so sincere that we would trade off profits to ensure it is available for everyone’s employment experience?”

5. Driving performance

Worst: Measuring performance in a master-servant relationship.

Best: Engaging people in ongoing conversations that develop their human potential (and deliver business outcomes as a result).

In the industrial age organisation, the manager is the parent and the direct report is a child. It sounds harsh, but that is precisely the dynamic at play. This kind of co-dependence betrays the essential peership of all humans and certainly doesn’t create the best outcomes.

The acid test: Ask yourself, “Is the manager’s first and foremost role here to develop the human potential of people?”

6. Employee engagement

Worst: Measuring engagement through an annual survey.

Best: Having your finger on the pulse of employee engagement and opinion at all times, through a listening strategy.

How often do you measure and monitor something mission-critical. Weekly? Daily? Continuously? How important is employee engagement to the performance of a 21st century organisation? Then why measure it every one to two years, do barely anything with the results and bemoan that the needle has barely moved again a year later?

The acid test: Ask yourself, “Is our information on employee engagement as accurate and frequent as our information on our financials and our customer experience?”

7. Employee development

Worst: Developing people through classroom seminars.

Best: Developing people through their daily work and through stretching immersions.

Of all the ills, this might be the gravest and the most pervasive. Bendelta research shows that most development programs, even the ones companies are proud of, deliver negligible ROI and build almost no sustained capability improvement. And most aren’t willing to investigate this (perhaps because they fear what they will find). By contrast, in fields such as sport and music, development methods have progressed so rapidly in the last few decades that today’s average performers would make yesterday’s elite look like amateurs.

Along with technology, this is perhaps the biggest battleground for competitive advantage in the 21st century. A small part of it is about formal development – the rest is about the nature of the work experience itself.

The acid test: Ask yourself “How well do people here develop themselves, simply in the course of doing their job each day?”

So there you have it. Pose these seven acid tests and do be brave enough to be utterly honest. The answers may make you wince, but recognising the issues and being prepared to act on them is a great step in ensuring your company is fit for this century, rather than the one that has already passed.


About the author

Anthony Mitchell is a leadership correspondent for Dynamic Business and Chairman of strategic leadership advisory firm, Bendelta. He’s also Chairman of the Aurora Education Foundation, which provides accelerated education opportunities for high potential Indigenous students and a member of the Amnesty International Australia 2020 Council.


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