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Does your Boss use a M16A2 or a AK-47?

Michael P. Warkentien
Doctoral Student, Florida Atlantic University
Guest Blogger

In his 2009 book, the Strategic Leader: New Tactics for a Globalizing World, Pisapia suggests that old science tactics must be replaced by new science tactics. He proposes that, in environments that are ambiguous, unpredictable and somewhat chaotic, simplicity allows an organization to more quickly adjust to current conditions. 

The simplicity is achieved by using the tactic of minimum specifications that are tied to the values of the organization. The Ritz Carlton Corporation provides a good example of a minimum specification to guide employee behavior when they say we are ladies and gentleman serving ladies and gentlemen.  Employees are expected to apply this value when confronted with a difficult situation for which they have not been trained.

I observed this tactic during my service in the military and recently completed tour in Iraq.   I became uncomfortably familiar with the legendary reliability of the AK-47 (AK), the weapon of choice for enemies of baseball, apple pie, and the American dream.  The reasons behind its dependability are few moving parts and loose tolerances (lots of wiggle room inside).  It requires little training to operate and can produce massive amounts of firepower that can overwhelm an opponent.  The major weakness of this rifle is its lack of precision and accuracy.  To become an expert marksman with the AK you are provided with minimum specifications and told to use your feeling, intuition, and exercise your judgment.

I also became familiar with the M-16A2 (M16) rifle. It is an extremely precise instrument of battle that can engage enemy combatants up to 550 yards away.  In the hands of a properly trained individual and adjusted to the users firing habits and weather conditions, it becomes a highly effective weapon.  Accordingly, the training and maintenance required to utilize the M16 are costly.  The serviceperson must comprehend how to regulate for altitude and distance using the front sight post and rear sight aperture elevation knob, adjust for weather conditions using the windage knob, and modify the settings for range and light conditions.  To become an expert in the M16 means you have to follow specific specifications - rules and procedures and years of practice.

Well, what lessons do these two diametrically opposed rifles have to offer those of us in leadership roles? Consider how your organization provides directives to its members; is it like the AK or the M16?

On the left side of the continuum you have the AK and minimum specifications. There are a few moving parts and a few simple rules which dictate how a person or persons responds to various situations. In other words there is wiggle room, autonomy and self management; calculated risks are important.  

On the right side of the continuum is the M16 with its specified and detailed instructions, a limited set of routines, options, or solutions.  This lack of wiggle room many times leads to stifled creativity and members unwilling to move outside the rules for fear of punishment even if they know it’s in the company’s best interest. This, in no way, means that the M16 is inferior.  On the contrary, once an organization sets a direction, the M16 might be the perfect model for frame sustaining change or improving and fine-tuning operations. 

Understanding the difference between the AK and the M16 needs to take place at the executive levels of leadership when they develop their strategic plans in ways that enable their employees to understand the direction the organization is moving and the rationale behind the directives to guide their actions.  Like Lew Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM said, I lead by principles not procedures; and so should you! 

The takeaway is threefold; create a balance between the two weapon designs, simple and agile during uncertain times and highly calibrated in periods of certainty, to have the wisdom to know the difference, and to generate trust amongst employees to ease the movement along the scale from one side to the other.

What do you think?
Do you have a story to share?

John Pisapia 2010

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