After 100 Years of Taylorism, We Need a New Leadership Paradigm

100 years ago, in 1915, Frederick Winslow Taylor, one of the most influential management thinkers in history, passed away at the age of 59. In 1911, four years prior to his death, Taylor published his famous book The Principles of Scientific Management, which still influences the way we teach and practice management today.

Taylor believed that applying a scientific method to managing workers could greatly improve productivity. The worker was taken for granted as a cog in the machinery and any job could be studied and best practices could be encapsulated and taught to other workers, making them more productive. Taylor used “time and motion studies,” which involve timing workers with stopwatches, to determine the “most efficient” way to do things.

Another core element in Taylor’s principles was based on an observation Taylor called “soldiering”. Taylor observed that workers with a similar salary tended to work at the lowest possible rate that went unpunished. Taylor experimented with what we today will call performance pay to increase productivity.

Finally, Taylor argued that upper management should make all decisions with no input from the workers, whether individually or collectively. Taylor believed that managers, with university degrees, are able to make better decisions about how to do the work than the workers actually carrying out the work.

In all fairness to Taylor, he believed that workers would also benefit from scientific management. Management would help workers benefit from increased wages, by determining the best method to complete each task and train the workers accordingly.

Taylor’s scientific management consists of four principles:

  1. Managers develop a science for each element of a man’s work, which replaces the old rule-of-thumb method.
  2. Managers scientifically select and then train, teach, and develop the workman, whereas in the past he chose his own work and trained himself as best he could.
  3. Managers heartily cooperate with the men so as to ensure all of the work being done in accordance with the principles of the science which has been developed.
  4. There is an almost equal division of the work and the responsibility between the management and the workmen. The management takes over all work for which they are better fitted than the workmen, while in the past almost all of the work and the greater part of the responsibility were thrown upon the men.

The Need for a New Leadership Paradigm

The world we live in today is very different from the world Taylor knew when he coined the principles of scientific management.

Taylor based his principles on studies of moving pig iron at the Bethlehem Steel Company, shoveling at Bethlehem Steel and bricklaying. This was manual, repetitive, and often physically challenging work, but it was rarely mentally challenging. A lot of this type of work has since been automated or at least made easier with advancements in technology. Today, more and more people are what we categorize as knowledge workers. The heavy lifting they do is mostly mental and the problems they solve are highly sophisticated.

Another major difference is in how we think of leadership ability and the role of incentives. In the early 20th century, managers were significantly better educated than most of their reports. Taylor believed that workers were not able to figure out how to be effective and this was a primary concern for managers. Taylor also believed that workers, if unsupervised or not economically incentivized, would intentionally lower their pace. Today, we know that money is often not the best way to motivate people to do mentally challenging work. Traditionally we reward great performers by promoting them, often into jobs they don´t want or aren’t really good at. Instead, we should look at alternative incentives, like increased power, flexibility, increased autonomy, and more challenging tasks.

Thirdly, the rate of change we see in business today is higher than ever before. New businesses challenge existing businesses, but also create entirely new business models. Companies like Netflix redefined how we rent movies. Amazon changed the bookstore business forever. Record labels have never been the same since Apple introduced iTunes and Apple, in turn, is now trying to push new free ad-supported music services like Spotify. There are countless examples and it does not look like the rate of change will slow down anytime soon.

We cannot keep up with the increased complexity and rate of change in today’s business environment and apply the same old solutions. Traditional hierarchies are great for compliance and efficiency but often fail at innovation and when trying to cope with disruptive change to their business models.

To solve the challenges we are facing today, we need to figure out new and more flexible leadership paradigms. Ambitious, smart people, inside or outside an organization, should easily be able to contribute to the innovation and building of better products and services and thereby better companies.

Luckily, many organizations and leadership thinkers are already pioneering new paradigms and some will definitely be topics for future posts. If you know of any interesting work in this area, please share using the comments below.

If you found this post useful, you will probably also enjoy my second post in this series titled: Reinventing Organizations – In Search of a New Leadership Paradigm.

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