The devil is in a detail

4 October 2016

Mies van der Rohe, the famous Bauhaus architect, claimed that “God is in the details.” But another expression, that “The devil is in the details”, is more common, perhaps because the devil has been hard at work in the corporate world these days.

I relish businesses that get the details right. The first thing you notice about a great restaurant is how good the bread is. When you walk into a well-functioning office, you are struck by the attentiveness of the people. As a customer, you pay what they ask, because of another detail: you trust them. Even when this is substantial, you walk out feeling satisfied—it was worth it.  When the devil is lurking about, however, you notice the details even more: the surliness of a staff member, or being ripped off by some unexpected charge.

Recently we took our health care program ( back to a hotel because last time it was so good on the details. Not this time. We brought two of our own microphones, but were forced to rent theirs: four days for $1200. (We bought our two for $400.) A server grabbed away my juice glass at breakfast, and didn’t respond when I asked for it back until I raised my voice a third time. She turned around and shot back: “You could go and get a new one.” The bathroom near our meeting room was dirty, and ran out of paper. Liz, who administers the program, said: “I did not feel like we were important to them.” What happened to this place?

Shall we look for the devil in the executive offices? A new manager, perhaps? Nope, the same one as last time. New owners? Yes, from abroad, who apparently moved into the place. Were they managing the manager? Who knows? Or maybe this was just an off week. After all, the first thing I noticed at dinner was how good the bread was. (The second thing I noticed was that the food had become less good.)

The devil in many enterprises these days may also be lurking in a book that is 100 years old. Henri Fayol, a French mining magnate, published General and Industrial Administration in 1916. It described the basic elements of managing as Planning, Organizing, Commanding, Coordinating, and Controlling. Think about them: five words for controlling!

This view dominated the managerial mindset for decades. Then along came a number of management writers, myself included, who challenged it. In my 1973 book The Nature of Managerial Work, I pointed out that managers spend at least half their time interacting with people outside their units: negotiating with suppliers, lobbying with governments, meeting customers, and so on. Where is the controlling in this? And many of us have been working hard for years to get managing past the mindset of all that controlling: toward cooperating and collaborating, in a word, communityship, beyond leadership.

Now, however, especially in many widely-held enterprises, controlling seems to have come back with a vengeance. “Owners” who are changing all the time, and many of the stock analysts who do their bidding, couldn’t care less about engaging employees, about pride and respect in work, about serving customers, about quality in products and services.  All they care about is MORE: squeezing out more revenues, more savings, more profits. Manage the enterprise the way you make orange juice.

But what happens when there is no more to be squeezed out of a place that has been run really well? The answer is easy: provide less to make more. Rip the customers off with add-on fees. Pressure the staff to cut corners. Or “downsize” them altogether so that there is no-one to replenish the toilet paper. And don’t forget to pay the CEO outrageous bonuses to drive all this.

Yes, Planning, Organizing, Commanding, Coordinating, and Controlling is back all right, except that now it has become remote controlling: detached from the operations yet determined to control them. This has become much of management in the digital age.

Did I suggest above that controlling is focussed within the organization? Not this time around. Now the customers are controlled ($1200 for microphones), the suppliers are controlled (don’t let them get carried away with quality), even markets are controlled (buy your competitors when you can’t collude with them). All except the stock market and those analysts. The devil is now in one little detail: the immediate price of the stock. Where are you God?

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. For more on some of this, see my book Simply Managing.

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