It is easy for ideas or plans for transformational change to transition into transactional processes that deliver only incremental change. Transformational change is about major shifts in culture, strategy or technology that causes substantial alterations in structure, organisation, behaviour and performance; whereas transactional changes occur within the existing structure and organisation. Leading transformational change is hard and requires courage, vision, a willingness to listen to all stakeholders, decisiveness and communication, i.e. procedural justice and fair processes [see ‘Advice to abbots and other leaders‘ on November 13th, 2019]. If any of these components are absent, especially courage, vision and decisiveness, then transformational change can transition to a transactional process with incremental outcomes. When the need to change becomes urgent due to existential threats, the focus should be on disruptive change [see ‘The disruptive benefit of innovation‘ on May 23rd 2018] but there is a tendency to avoid such transformations and retreat into transactional processes that provide the illusion of progress. Perhaps this is because transformational change requires leaders to be selfless, courageous and to do the right thing not just the easy thing [see ‘Inspirational leadership‘ on March 22nd, 2017]; whereas transactional processes occur within existing frameworks and hence minimise psychological entropy and stress [see ‘Psychological entropy increased by ineffectual leaders‘ on February 10th, 2021]. This tendency to avoid disruptive change happens at all levels in society from individual decisions about lifestyle, through product development in companies, to global conferences on climate change [see ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021].
Engineers make things happen and no one notices them when everything works reliably and smoothly. You could replace engineers in that sentence by managers. Managers are responsible for people and organisations while engineers are responsible for the systems that underpin modern life. You can pair scientists and leaders in the same way. Scientists discover new knowledge which sets a direction for the future of technology while leaders create a vision for their organisation which also sets the direction for the future. Then engineers and managers turn the imagined futures into reality. Of course the divisions are fuzzy. Some of us would be considered engineering scientists because we work at the interface between science and engineering. And many engineers spend more time managing people and organisations than practising engineering. However, the bottom-line is that engineers and managers are responsible for the functioning of modern society and deserve greater recognition for their successes; if only to ensure a continuous and diverse flow of talented young people into the professions. So, here are two Liverpool engineers that have made the news recently for their contributions to engineering: Chris Sutcliffe who was awarded a prestigious Silver Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering for his role in driving the development of metal 3D printed implants for use in human and veterinary surgery; and Kate Black who was named as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering for her work on the development of novel functional materials, using inkjet printing, for the manufacture of electronic and optoelectronic devices.
See ‘Happenstance, not engineering?‘ on November 9th, 2016 for an explanation of why people are quick to assign blame when things go wrong and slow to praise when things go well – it’s all about the relative number of sites in the brain capable of blame and praise.
Leadership is about inspiring people; whereas, management is about organising tasks and resources. In a organisational context, strategic leadership is about persuading people to move voluntarily, and together, in a direction that benefits the organisation; while, management is about dealing with the complexity of planning and processes. The boundary between leadership and management is often blurred; though in my experience, people more frequently believe that they are leading when, in reality, they are managing. Perhaps, this is because they want to make a difference; but, for most of us, leadership is really hard and requires courage. The courage to be different. To be selfless. The courage to do what is right and not just what is easy.
It is easier to get involved in the detail of making things happen, of telling people how to do things; but that’s management and not leadership. Leadership is about letting go and trusting others to make the right decisions on the details – having the courage to delegate. There’s something about entropy in there and not over constraining the system, or under constaining it; but, now I ‘ve got to the entropy vector and that’s a whole different story.
Engineers like to apply the second law of thermodynamics to chemical processes and power generation cycles. However, it has some useful lessons for everyday life since it can be paraphrased as ‘whenever you organise any process expect some disorder, or entropy to be generated’, so a shrewd person plans for disorder and designs in a bit of slack or redundancy.
Bob and I gave an example of this in our book, ‘The Entropy Vector’. We pointed out that if you plan your flight schedule to use all of the available gates at an airport then you will have unhappy passengers when flights are delayed, unless you plan for buses to unload planes parked away from the terminal. European airports tend to be good at this whereas US ones tend to leave passengers in planes that are unable to dock at the terminal.
Our example was inspired by frustrating experiences when we were writing the book. A more topical and important example was raised by Mark Winston in the New York Times on July 14th, 2014 in reporting the importance of bees to farming. His research team found that crop yields were maximised when large acreages were left uncultivated to support wild pollinators. He postulated that a variety of wild plants means a healthier, more diverse bee population which will be more active in the planted fields next door. Their numbers were startling with profits more than doubling for farmers that left a third of their acreage fallow. Winston highlights that this contravenes conventional wisdom that bees and fields can be micromanaged.
This seems like reinventing the wheel because I remember being taught about the importance of crop rotation, including a fallow period, in my ‘middle’ school geography classes. Oh dear, now I am showing my age.
The bottom-line is don’t micromanage. Allow for a bit of inefficiency, not too much of course or your competitors will get ahead! It’s a question of balance.