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Advice for New Managers on How to Avoid Harwell’s Laws

In 2004 I wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay called “Harwell’s Unfortunate Laws of Human Organizational Behavior.” I put it on my web site, but I just sent the link to a few close friends. Frankly, I thought the content of the essay was too different from my normal, more up-beat type of article. But I was looking at the “Harwell’s Laws” essay a few weeks ago, and it struck me that there’s a positive statement that can be made from every negative. So I’ve decided to repeat the 10 laws here, together with the advice that I would offer based on each of the laws.

Law #1: People always try to use their experience even if it doesn’t apply to the current situation.

See my newsletter article, “Don’t Get Stuck in a Learning Stage.” It describes how people who are new to a situation – for example, first-time managers – don’t know what they don’t know. As a result, they make the incorrect assumption that their prior experience must apply to the current situation, even when it doesn’t. There are ways to avoid this problem, but they chiefly depend on having a good mentor who can help you differentiate between things you know and things you don’t. It also takes an open mind, which of course is difficult to achieve in itself, especially under the pressure of a new management job.

Law #2: If someone is brought in as the new manager of an organization, then the new manager will feel obligated to change the organization. Otherwise, what value is the manager contributing?

This again gets back to the “don’t know what they don’t know” situation. If you ever jumped rope as a child with other children holding the rope, then you know that you have to get into the rhythm of the rope before you jump in; otherwise you’ll just get all tangled up. The same thing applies to a new manager of an organization: you have to get a sense of the “rhythm” of the organization before you understand it enough to make changes. Yes, you want to make the organization better, but it helps to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the organization – and of the people in the organization – before you start making improvements.

To use a different analogy, if you’re going to tear down some of the walls in a building, it helps to know which ones are structural supports before you start demolition. Otherwise the whole building may come down around you. Some of the processes, attitudes, people and relationships in an organization are just as much structural supports as a supporting wall. Change them only after you have put alternative supports in place.

Law #3: If a manager doesn’t know how to improve an organization, then he/she will change it to look like the last organization that he/she remembers.

In Chapter 3 of my book, Boiling the IT Frog, I say that “It’s human nature to want to minimize change, and if [you’re] used to working with a product, and if [you’ve] been successful with the product in the past, then [you’re] going to want to work with it again.” The same thing applies to processes: you want to use the same processes that you’ve used in the past because you’re used to them. What you might forget, however, is that there’s just one of you, and there are lots of employees who are already used to doing things the way they’re doing them now. So if you’re sure that changing things will provide a benefit, then go ahead. But don’t make changes just because you’re used to things working a certain way; you’ll waste your time, the time of your employees, and the limited credibility you get as a new manager.

Law #4: Either things in an organization will get better or things will get worse. If things get better, then the manager will be rewarded, regardless of whether the manager is responsible for the improvement. If things get worse, then the manager will move on to another organization to try again.

If this is true in your company then it’s not the fault of the new manager – it’s the fault of the manager’s manager. Don’t reward people based on organizational improvement without understanding whether the person being rewarded actually caused the improvement. You might have to do a little digging to find out, but it will be time well spent.

And if the reward you’re giving the “successful” manager is a promotion, then you need to consider the fit of the potential manager for the new position into which he/she is being promoted. Managing engineers doesn’t quality someone to manage customer service people; managing clerical people doesn’t qualify someone to manage engineers. Look at the specific needs of the new management role, and then take a hard look at whether those needs can be met by the prospective manager. If there’s a gap, then are you prepared to help the new manager attain the skills necessary to close the gap?

Law #5: Sometimes things in an organization get a little better before they get a lot worse. If the manager is lucky, then he/she will be promoted to a better job before things start to get worse. Of course, then the cycle will start all over again.

See my comments on Law #4. This is what happens when you promote based on organizational success without determining whether the manager of the organization had anything to do with that success. It’s also what happens when you declare victory prematurely; it sometimes takes a while to determine whether an initially positive change will continue to be positive.

Law #6: Rarely, a new manager will actually ask the employees what should be improved. If the employees understand how their organization contributes to the company’s overall performance, then they will undoubtedly provide a better answer than the manager’s experience.

There are two statements included in this law. First, there’s the statement that employees often know what can be improved in an organization. This is almost always true, and I talk about it in my newsletter article, “Hidden Consultants within your Organization.” Second, there’s the statement that new managers will rarely ask employees what should be improved, and I explain why in that same newsletter article. I won’t repeat these lessons in this month’s newsletter article, but here’s the bottom line: listen to your employees, but put their advice into perspective.

Law #7: Sometimes the manager will hire a consultant. The consultant will then ask the employees what should be improved, and the result will be put into a PowerPoint® presentation, then ignored by the manager.

Smart consultants know how valuable a resource the employees of an organization are. The consultants do a lot of listening, and then they filter the things they’ve heard based on their prior experience (see Law #1). Nevertheless, much of the employee advice will find its way into the consultant’s recommendation, and thus into a PowerPoint presentation to management. Alas, the manager will then proceed to filter the consultant’s recommendation based on his/her own experience, thus gutting the key aspects of the consultant recommendation.

Realistically – and very unfortunately – most consultants are hired not to provide new recommendations, but to legitimize the actions that the manager already wants to take. That’s why the consultant (and employee) recommendations are so often ignored. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and as a new manager you are in a position to actually listen to employee and consultant recommendations. If you use those recommendations, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much the recommendations can help, and you’ll be amazed at the morale boost you’ll get from employees who know that you listen.

Law #8: Good organizations will continue to get better until someone in higher management decides they’re not good enough. Then they’ll get worse.

When you’re on a path toward improvement, it’s easy to get impatient and try to speed things up. But there are many hazards in doing so, not the least of which is that you often don’t really understand why things are getting better. You might think that the improvement is due to a particular change you’ve made, when in fact the improvement might be caused by other factors entirely, like improved interaction among employees or a better sense of pride in the work. If you pick the wrong factor and attempt to speed it up, then you’re likely to sabotage the progress you’ve made. Patience is rare in today’s organizations, but it’s extremely important when coping with complex organizational change.

Law #9: Bad organizations will continue to get worse until a new manager tries an idea which should have been obvious from the beginning.

Actually, there is no such thing as a “bad organization” – there are only organizations which aren’t focused on the right things. Most people in an organization know what the right things are (for example, customer satisfaction or truly enjoying the work), but most managers are distracted from the right things by instructions from higher up in the chain of command. When a manager finally sees the light and realizes (maybe by talking to employees or customers) what the right things are, and when the manager redirects the organization to do those right things, then the organization will be able to turn its performance around.

Law #10: If a company contains multiple similar organizations, then they will always be compared, but the true differences will not be discovered. The good organizations will get worse as a result of the comparison, and the bad organizations will get worse as well.

It’s human nature to compare things, and in business we like to compare things using numbers. “XYZ organization is more profitable, more productive, [pick your own numeric superlative] than ABC organization.” We think we know what we’re talking about, but we have to be very careful when we try to explain why one organization has a better numeric score than another. That’s the first mistake we typically make: we jump to the conclusion that the difference between XYZ and ABC can be attributed to a certain factor. Then we make a second mistake: we assume that there is a cause and effect relationship between that factor and the numeric performance. As a result we try to change this factor in organization ABC and assume that the numeric performance of ABC will improve.

Now the people in organization XYZ begin to believe that this magical factor is the cause of their success. They begin to put an inappropriate emphasis on the factor in the hope of making things even better, and their performance begins to degrade. Maybe they were doing things “right” before, but now they’re caught up in the psychological game of thinking they know how to improve, and because they’re focusing on improvement instead of on the “right things” (see my comments on Law #9), XYZ’s performance gets worse.

Meanwhile, the people in organization ABC try to improve their performance by changing the identified factor. But however they were doing before, their new emphasis on this factor is likely to distract them from the “right things” and the result is likely to be poorer performance for ABC.

You might be able to make temporary improvements in an organization by focusing on some factor that’s not directly related to the end goal of the organization, but improving an organization is like improving your golf or tennis game: you have to integrate all of the factors into a single focus on the result, and not be distracted by a short-term focus on contributing factors like your backswing, your stance or your follow-through.

Conclusion

I wrote the ten laws to point out some patterns in the way managers and organizations relate. The laws are funny, but in a Dilbert sort of way; there’s an edge to the humor because we all see situations in our own lives where these laws hold true. Humor is good because it helps us address problem areas without being embarrassed; we can learn from humor by trying to avoid situations where our actions would be seen as a joke. Laugh all you want at my 10 Unfortunate Laws – just try to make sure the joke is not on you.

For an unannotated list of Harwell’s Unfortunate Laws of Human Organizational Behavior, including a link to a printable one-page Acrobat PDF copy of the laws, click here.

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