Bertrand Russell, the Nobel laureate, logician, philosopher, and humanitarian, insisted that “mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature…” and this is the view that propelled his life.https://users.drew.edu/~jlenz/br-ml-ch4.html So passionate was his pursuit of beauty that he described a six-month prison sentence for conscientious objection as “agreeable,” as it allowed him to work undisturbed, writing the entirety of Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy from his cell.https://www.openculture.com/2020/02/bertrand-russells-prison-letters-are-now-digitized-put-online-1918-1961.html
Many of us have fleetingly felt the inspiration that drove Russell — watching our children thrive or being fully absorbed in a passion project. But most are rarely motivated this way in their work. Instead, we are more likely driven by obligation or financial rewards. Whether we do it knowingly, we rely on the business philosophy called scientific management. Formulated in the early 1900s by Frederick Winslow Taylor, scientific management is about the maximizing efficiency and measurability of work. He believed that managers ought to specify “not only what is to be done but how it is to be done and the exact time allowed for doing it.”Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. Harper & Brothers, 1911, archive.org, https://archive.org/details/principlesofscie00taylrich/mode/2up, Accessed 27 Apr. 2022.
Taylor believed that agency and control should remain with managers as much as possible. To do this, work would be sub-divided, standardized, and measured. Each task was codified, and workers were trained to execute them as specified. Finally, managers were to ensure that every step could be observed and measured for further optimization.
Scientific management is a product of its time, conceived when a significant amount of work took place in factories. It is a powerful approach for optimizing physical production, at least in part because it minimizes the quirky and unpredictable human aspects of work. Scientific management loses its power when applied to work where it is precisely these human elements that are critical. Specifically, scientific management is less effective in the following contexts.
- Problems of cooperation. Effective cooperation between humans cannot be readily compelled or mandated. Likewise, no KPI can completely measure its success, or properly incentivize its implementation. To cooperate effectively we need to share common aspirations and values with others and no amount of automation or standardization can ensure this.
- Creative or empathic work. Work that can be easily standardized is becoming less important for humans to execute. Over time, routine work, from bus-driving to copyediting, will be automated using artificial intelligence. As routine work disappears, we will be left with work which depends upon more uniquely human traits and abilities like empathy, creativity, and ethics. These are not the skills scientific management was designed to support.
- Inspiring the next generation of employees. Young people today want their jobs to be personally and socially meaningful. According to a recent Gartner Research poll, more than half of respondents reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had “made [them] question the purpose of [their] day-to-day job”. It is not enough for companies to have a purpose statement. Employees increasingly want to believe in the companies and work which absorb the major portion of their waking hours. The tools of scientific management — goals, quotas, evaluations, monetary incentives and the threat of being fired — are insufficient to motivate today’s knowledge workers.
- Continuous transformation. The pace of business change is accelerating to keep pace with technology and shifting societal expectations, such as decarbonization. As the pace increases, scientific change management approaches, which tell us what to change but not why, leave employees exhausted. Classical approaches rely on top down prescription, overwhelming employees with a sense that any change is an alien event happening to them, rather than a forward-looking opportunity they are a part of and have ownership over.
In short, there is a limit to how far we can stretch the paradigm, and we are reaching it. Leaders implicitly know that we need to better inspire and use human talent, hence our collective obsession with purpose. These attempts often fall short however, as author Ranjay Gulati implies in his need to distinguish “deep purpose” from mere “purpose”.
Instead, we need a new paradigm to stand beside scientific management. We need a paradigm which holds our humanity as the central ingredient in solving human problems. We need a more humanistic approach to management.
Frank Knight, a leading economic and business thinker of the 20th century, balked at the notion of managing human tasks with ‘scientific management’ alone. In his words:
“A large part of economic activity, of the task of making a living for society, consists of converting material things into forms which can be scribed and standardized. The process of such transformation can be reduced to rule and specification, that is, they can be treated “scientifically.” But the larger and more difficult part of the work of the world consists either of working things into forms which we can only characterize by such vague terms as beauty …or else in working with human beings themselves and bringing them into relations which are agreeable and effective. Just what it is that makes human relations agreeable and effective baffles scientific statement just as obstinately as that which makes an esthetic object beautiful.” Frank H. Knight in Iowa City, 1919–1928. (2011). United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited. https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/FQ0zqzbhbMgC?hl=en&gbpv=0
What could “beautiful” management, better able to inspire the full potential of human creativity and cooperation, look like? We must look further back for inspiration. Since antiquity, philosophers, artists, and clergymen alike have studied beauty for its ability to inspire, and for the almost gravitational pull it has on us.
The ancient Greeks believed that beauty, truth, and goodness were closely related. In fact, the word for beauty common in Plato’s time was kalos, meaning noble or fine. In addition to beauty, it designated something moral beyond duty or obligation. Importantly, it was understood that neither beauty nor this elevated morality can be compelled — both must come from an intrinsic motivation. To do something beautiful, in that Greek sense, is to do something good, out of motivation simply to do that good thing, rather than because of an ulterior motive.
The Greeks also believed that beauty was a path to understanding something beyond the finite — giving us the ability to see beyond ourselves and beyond the moment toward some greater common purpose. This was echoed by many medieval thinkers, who described all beauty, whether natural (say, that of a flower), manufactured (say a painting), or intellectual (a well-ordered mathematical proof) as an emulation of God’s perfect beauty. Later philosophers severed the connection between beauty and the divine but continued to insist that beauty gave access to a greater truth. Good aesthetic taste was seen as a path to empathy and improved judgment, and as such as a conduit for the moral betterment of humanity.
The power that beauty has isn’t a dusty relic or a philosophical whimsy. Bertrand Russell felt it. And no doubt many of us have felt it fleetingly too in those moments when our work seemed noble and infinite, more of a privilege than a duty. Then we sense that beauty is a miraculous motivator. When we have distilled some of this power, inside or more likely outside of work, we know that it is non-instrumental, that it helps us see beyond ourselves, often to a common higher purpose.
The future of work has become a fashionable topic, with discussion largely focused on how to reorganize existing activities temporally and spatially in the current management paradigm. But we are also free to imagine more substantially new ways of working and managing. What would it take to inspire people’s best efforts without compulsion, to engage their curiosity and imagination, to awaken higher aspirations and to illuminate common purpose, engaging the full potential of human talent? We don’t have all of the answers, but our investigations provide some clues on how to materialize “beautiful management”.
Pursue infinite goals
Tactical goals are undoubtedly useful in many contexts. But where appropriate, dare to treat such goals as an oblique result of pursuing excellence. Imposing finite goals provides collective consistency and protection for near-term priorities, but sometimes at the expense of autonomy, aspiration, or personal meaning.
Allow people to work on whole problems
Encourage curiosity and ownership of whole problems, from inception to completion. It may be more efficient to subdivide and parcel out tasks, but less likely to inspire. For those that must naturally be subdivided, develop narratives that show how all activities are essential parts of the whole, encouraging ownership and cohesion across the firm.
Pursue prosocial effects
Beauty is not just seen or heard; it is also felt. It reaches for the heart, so to speak. Because it is so personal, beauty can also be a powerful interpersonal agent. To consider beauty together, or better, to create beauty together, is to build a lasting understanding and a common purpose. Through beauty, we learn to embrace causes larger than ourselves. We learn also to take joy in others’ success — the hallmark of lasting social collaboration. And so caring for others in and through one’s work turns from a duty to a voluntary commitment.
Inspire, don’t compel
When is the last time you put your all into something you were told to do, or incentivized to do, as opposed to something chosen as meaningful to you? It rarely happens, and though to compel is simpler as a manager than to inspire, efforts towards the latter are undoubtedly more effective.
Encourage alignment with excellence, not hierarchy
Goals may be best identified from the mountain top, tasks not so much. The more creative, adaptive, and fast-paced the work, the greater the need for individual autonomy. Even so, employees need an orientation that integrates diverse approaches into a harmonious whole. Aesthetic excellence provides that self-steering orientation toward the larger cause. It is also, in many ways, less arbitrary and more convincing than a principle of because-I-said-so.
Take inspiration from great craftsmen and women, such as carpenters, architects, and ceramicists, who, without prescriptive direction, conceive work that brings joy to many. Apple’s key industrial designer, Jony Ive, watched his father work as a silversmith during his childhood, and reports that the hands-on process of making was an important influence.
Cultivate pride in your workplace
Recall the first home you had that you were proud of. How did your experience of that space differ from your experience in a college dorm, or childhood home? You likely made sure you actually liked the art you hung, and took much more care cleaning. Similarly, when we take pride in something, especially something we believe to be beautiful, we take more care in preventing corrupting forces. In your first home, the corrupting forces were likely dust bunnies and dirty dishes; in the workplace, corrupting forces are apathy, corporate decline, harassment, and corruption itself.
Facilitate individual journeys
Scientific management tries to distill individuality out of the workplace. But for some jobs, especially those that are more creative in nature (including, as Frank Knight insisted, management), to standardize is to obstruct excellence.
From manager to creative designer to data scientist, moments of excellence and inspiration can only come when an employee applies the best of her specific abilities, whether that means following the handbook or not.
This list is not comprehensive — it can’t be, since unlike scientific management, inspiration and beauty have no simple universal formulae. But hopefully, it can help us to peep beyond the constraints of scientific management and help us to tap into a neglected part of human potential. Neither is the implied approach a panacea. We don’t suggest that anyone practice only ‘beautiful management’, but that the scientific and the beautiful serve managers as complements. If we are optimizing a production line, scientific management will likely provide the best approach. But it will serve us well to give the engineers doing that optimization the space, agency, and inspiration to do work that is truly their best.