When should managers insert themselves into a messy situation

Bob Sutton’s Work Matters Blog continues to be one of my best sources of managerial insight. One of the challenges of managing is choosing whether and when to intervene in your organization (presuming that micro-management is not your goal). In this recent excellent post, Sutton offers the distinction between two classic acronyms as an excellent diagnostic question to help make that choice:

FUBAR, SNAFU, Fast Company, and Good Bosses – Bob Sutton:

Snafu — situation normal, all fucked-up

fubar — fucked-up beyond all recognition

One CEO I know, also the son of a World War II veteran, uses the distinction between the two to help decide whether a “mess” requires intervention, or it is best to leave people alone for awhile to let them work through it.

He asks his team, or the group  muddling through mess: “Is it a snafu or fubar situation? ” He finds this to be a useful diagnostic question because, if it is just usual normal level confusion, error, and angst that is endemic to uncertain and creative work, then it is best to leave people alone and let hem muddle forward.  But if it is fubar, so fucked-up that real incompetence is doing real damage, the group is completely frozen by fear, good people are leaving or suffering deeply, customers are fleeing, or enduring damage is being done to a company or brand — then it is time to intervene.

This is a really nice way to assess both a messy situation and the strength and skill of your management tea. I’m adding it to my repertoire.

Review of Bob Sutton’s "Good Boss, Bad Boss"

Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best… and Learn from the Worst, Sutton, Robert I.

I’m becoming a fanboy of Bob Sutton, an engineering professor at Stanford who co-founded the d.school there. It started when i read The Knowing-Doing Gap : How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, which he co-authored with organizational theory icon Jeff Pfeffer. In 2007, he wrote The No Asshole Rule, which became a NY Times bestseller and was judged among the best business books in 2007. In between, he’s written a variety of books and articles, and an excellent blog, Work Matters, on management and organizational issues in today’s economy. Bob was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his newest book, Good Boss, Bad Boss, which is due to hit shelves early next month.

In Good Boss, Bad Boss, Sutton turns his attention and preference for evidence-based insights to the "authority figure that has direct and frequent contact with subordinates–and who is responsible for personally directing and evaluating their work." The quality of your boss, or your own quality as a boss, makes a huge difference in both the quality of work that gets done and the quality of the working environment. We all want to work for good bosses, presumably most of us aspire to be good bosses as well. Sutton adroitly mixes the substantial body of empirical evidence differentiating good bosses from bad bosses with effective stories and cases. He makes a case that it is possible to  become a better boss for those who wish to make the effort. Substantial and continuing effort, to be sure, but possible.

Sutton does have one core bias, a bias that I share. In his view, "bosses ought to be judged by what they and their people get done, and by how their followers feel along the way." The heart of the book is a series of chapters reviewing what the best bosses do. The chapter titles offer a good clue to both their content and Sutton’s perspective:

  • Take Control
  • Strive to be Wise
  • Stars and Rotten Apples
  • Link Talk and Action
  • Serve as a Human Shield
  • Don’t Shirk from the Dirty Work
  • Squelch Your Inner Bosshole

Obviously, no book on its own is going to make anyone a better boss. Becoming a better boss, like any skill, is a matter of good practice and good feedback. What Sutton offers in Good Boss, Bad Boss is a well organized and well justified collection of practices and ways to sense how well those practices are working. I found myself dog-earring pages, scribbling notes in the margins, and picking up new tidbits each time I went through the book. It reads smoothly and easily; yet it’s also densely packed with insights and actionable advice. As one example, let me share Sutton’s

11 Commandments for Wise Bosses

1. Have strong opinions and weakly held beliefs
2. Do not treat others as if they are idiots
3. Listen attentively to your people; don’t jut pretend to hear what they say
4. Ask a lot of good questions
5. Ask others for help and gratefully accept their assistance
6. Do not hesitate to say, "i don’t know."
7. Forgive people when they fail, remember the lessons, and teach them to everyone
8. Fight as if you are right, and listen as if you are wrong
9. Do not hold grudges after losing an argument. Instead, help the victors implement their ideas with all your might
10. Know your foibles and flaws, and work with people who correct and compensate for your weaknesses
11. Express gratitude to your people

Spiderman may offer the best summary of this book -  "with great power comes great responsibility." Good or bad, bosses are always on stage; their every move and utterance scrutinized. Being a good boss requires self-knowledge and self-awareness to an extraordinary degree. It also requires a keen sense for balance and for timing.

Other books by Bob Sutton


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Gary Hamel and innovations in management

The Future of Management, Hamel, Gary


Gary Hamel has been an astute observer of organizations and management for several decades now. For all the reasons that seemed to make sense at the time, this book sat on my shelf for a while before I got to it. Based on the current state of the economy, I suspect a number of executives who could have benefitted from Hamel’s insights also failed to get them in a timely fashion. Hamel’s central thesis is that management is a mature technology and is ripe for disruptive innovation. Although he makes only passing reference to Clay Christensen’s work, there are important points of linkage between these two management thinkers.

The underlying rationale behind management philosophy and practices was largely laid down in the early decades of the twentieth century during the growth and ascendancy of the large multi-divisional industrial organization. In other words, most managers continue to operate with the mindset and practices originally developed to handle the problems encountered by the railroads, GM, IBM, and the other organizations making up the Dow Jones average between 1930 and 1960. While we’ve experienced multiple innovations in products, technologies, services, and strategies, the basics of management have changed little. Here’s how Hamel puts it:

While a suddenly resurrected 1960s-era CEO would undoubtedly be amazed by the flexibility of today’s real-time supply chains, and the ability to provide 24/7 customer service, he or she would find a great many of today’s management rituals little changed from those that governed corporate life a generation or two ago. Hierarchies may have gotten flatter, but they haven’t disappeared. Frontline employees may be smarter and better trained, but they’re still expected to line up obediently behind executive decisions. Lower-level managers are still appointed by more senior managers. Strategy still gets set at the top. And the big calls are still made by people with big titles and even bigger salaries. there may be fewer middle managers on the payroll, but those that remain are doing what managers have always done–setting budgets, assigning tasks, reviewing performance, and cajoling their subordinates to do better. (p. 4)

Hamel sets out to explore what innovation in the practice of management would look like and how organizations and managers might tackle the problems of developing and deploying those innovations. I don’t think he gets all the way there, but the effort is worth following.

The first section of the book lays out the case for management innovation as compared to other forms. the second examines three organizations that Hamel considers worthy exemplars: Whole Foods, W.L. Gore, and Google. The last two section build a framework for how you might start doing managerial innovation within your own organization.

Hamel does a good job of extracting useful insights from the case examples he presents. Hamel’s own preference is for a managerial future that is less hierarchical and less mechanical. At the same time, he wants each of us to commit to doing managerial innovation for ourselves. This leaves him in a bit of a bind. I suspect that Hamel would like to be more prescriptive, but his position forces him to leave the prescription as an exercise for the reader. While I agree with Hamel that both individuals and organizations need to be formulating their own theories of management and experimenting on their own, this is not likely to happen in most organizations and particularly so in the current economic climate. Necessity is not the mother of invention; rather it forces us to cling to the safe and familiar. We need a degree of safety and a degree of slack to do the kinds of thinking and experimenting that will produce meaningful managerial innovations. I fear that may be hard to come by in the current environment; no matter how relevant or necessary.

What you can do in the interim is research and reflection to discover or define opportunities for possible managerial innovations. This book is one excellent starting point, but insufficient on its own.

Is this an agenda worth pursuing? What else would you recommend to move forward?