Rise of the Lean Executive

“No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it.” – Peter Drucker

Drucker has passed on, but fortunately for us his ideas have not.

Corporate executives are turning to books like The Lean Startup for ideas on how to keep their organizations relevant. (I know because I see the growing demand for it in our work)

Lean Executive

They are frustrated and under an enormous amount of pressure. Not only do executives have to worry about other large and mid-sized companies, but now even startups, seemingly come out of nowhere to take away market share.

Executives are discovering it isn’t enough to encourage practices such as building Minimum Viable Products to create meaningful change in their organizations.

Smart executives realize that to win the game, their organizations need to discover, learn, and act quicker than the competition.

I call these executives, Lean Executives.

Becoming a Lean Executive

The Lean Executive is not always newly minted, but many have recently stepped in to fill positions vacated by the old guard. They’ve seen first hand what years and years of process layered on top of process can do to an organization. They know that too much process leaves us with organizations that can no longer deliver work and employees who are multitasking and constantly busy, yet not delivering any value. And they are doing something to change it.

So how do you begin your journey to becoming a Lean Executive?

1. People are not waste, but people do wasteful activities.

Listen for phrases in meetings such as waiting around for and manually processing. Ask coworkers for their thoughts on how they’d solve the situation, rather than leading with answers. You may be pleasantly surprised with the responses and provide them with much needed support.

2. Quality is subjective, until it isn’t.

Use 5 Why’s to move beyond surface level events to catalyze real change in behaviors. Work with your people to push decisions down to the lowest possible level. Create space for people to feel pride in their work, rather than promote processes that encourage hot potato with defects.

3. Last responsible moment is tricky because of that pesky responsible part.

Recognize when your people are endlessly debating the technology stack but haven’t validated the customer need. Help them become unstuck, but do so in a non-destructive manner. On the other side, interject when they’ve well exceeded the last responsible moment on making a decision. Helping your middle managers build out their facilitation skills should mitigate some of these moments.

4. Speed, speed, and more speed.

Find ways to empower your teams to experiment quickly so that they can validate or invalidate their hypotheses. Decompose large projects into small experiments to learn; because quite frankly most of your large projects are experiments anyway. Do you want to learn if you are wrong next week or 6 months from now?

5. Do not substitute process for trust.

None of this works without some degree of respect and trust. Don’t be quick to insert process when something goes wrong. At some point you will need to trust your team and give them a chance to shine. If you don’t feel people can ever be trusted, then I suggest you not lead an organization. Design an environment where leadership can emerge and protect your culture.

Lean Executives Are the Future

Drucker’s words still ring true today, in a time when even Superman, VP of Marketing, would be escorted out if he missed his numbers. In a time when the S&P Fortune 500 has seen its average company life span shrink from 75 years to about 15 years.

If we are to change those trends, we’ll need to do more than mandate experiments and launch a few feature fakes. Let us hope that with embracing lean thinking (and a little luck) this new generation of executives can help our large organizations remain relevant.

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