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por Roger L. Martin
It’s a given of human nature that whenever people get an assignment that they can’t or don’t want to do, they’ll make up a different one and do that instead. If a job is unchallenging, they’ll redefine it to be more interesting, and if it’s not doable, they’ll turn it into something that they can accomplish. Sometimes that works out, but mostly it doesn’t, because the job doesn’t fulfill its intended function.
Managers will be far more effective if they take time to sit down regularly with employees and explore what their job preferences are and how their tasks can be both achievable and engaging. But it’s a two-way street: Subordinates must also help design the tasks their bosses will do. If those responsibilities aren’t interesting or value-adding, the bosses will make up their own tasks—with results the subordinates may not like.
One of my favorite Star Trek story lines is about the Kobayashi Maru training simulation for Starfleet Academy students. It was first featured in the second Star Trek movie, in 1982, and then when the movie series was rebooted, in 2009.
The simulation presents Starfleet cadets with an agonizing dilemma: An officer must decide whether to rescue a civilian ship deep in enemy territory, putting his or her own entire crew at risk, or to let the 381 passengers and crew on the disabled ship die. When faced with this choice, Star Trek’s central protagonist, the irascible Captain James T. Kirk, then a cadet, refuses to accept the no-win scenario. Instead he hacks into the simulation and reprograms it to enable him to save the civilian ship without losing his own starship. When his ruse is discovered by academy officials, he’s severely punished—but his determination to change the rules when faced with an impossible task endears him to the audience and foreshadows a distinguished career of rule-bending heroism. It also illustrates a fundamental truth about human behavior: When people are given an assignment they can’t do or don’t want to do, they’ll make up a different job and do that instead. Sometimes it works out—as it did for Kirk. But mostly it doesn’t, at least not from the perspective of employers.
For more than 40 years I’ve been working closely with leaders and managers in all kinds of organizations as a consultant, researcher, and educator, and I’ve seen this phenomenon time and again, almost always with destructive consequences. I’ve also learned how managers and their subordinates can prevent it by taking the time to explore their jobs and objectives together. Let’s begin by looking at the source of the problem.
Virtually everyone is motivated to succeed, but people don’t experience a sense of success when a job is too easy. Alternatively, they won’t succeed at all if the job is far beyond their capabilities. If they can do the job but find it unchallenging, they’ll redefine its scope so that it is challenging. If it’s challenging but not doable, they’ll transform it into something they can do.
Both are natural and sensible reactions—from the jobholder’s perspective. The downside, of course, is that the job has been changed, which almost ensures that it won’t fulfill its intended function. Kobayashi Maru was designed to be unwinnable so that the Starfleet Academy could see how cadets performed in the face of defeat. To be sure, Kirk displayed initiative, but he prevented the test from making the assessment it was supposed to make.
On one level preventing employees from changing a job should be simple: Make sure it is doable and challenging. But problems with feasibility and a lack of intellectual stimulation usually aren’t obvious, and neither is the way most jobs get altered. What’s more, productivity isn’t just a function of a job’s definition and the individual performing it. The people who oversee the job are integral as well, and their approach needs to be carefully framed by the jobholder so that the latter is set up to succeed.
There’s an unspoken assumption that a job is a collection of tasks the employee does every day, every week, and every month. The trouble is that modern managerial jobs aren’t easily defined and evolve over time.
As I have argued previously in HBR, a managerial job is actually an array of projects—with varying degrees of difficulty—that take shape, require intensive work, are completed, and then fade into the mists of time. If you’re a brand manager at a consumer goods company, for instance, your projects could include launching a new brand extension, repricing your existing offerings, creating ad copy, working out a problem at one of your key retailers, analyzing the profitability of your brand, and so on.
Given all that, a one-size-fits-all definition of “brand manager at Anywhere Inc.” probably won’t reflect the reality of an employee with that title. Her role on some projects will be too challenging, and on others not challenging enough. And she’ll redefine each project to suit her needs. I’ve seen this happen with jobs across industries from software to telecom to professional services to consumer goods to finance. Problems emerge most often when an employee has to do tasks concerning both the management of a current project and the creation of a new one.
In almost every case, tasks related to the current project feel easier and less scary, while it’s difficult to even know where to start on the new project’s tasks. What inevitably happens is that the person in question redefines her job as taking care of the current project first and then working on the new one. Just as inevitably, she never gets around to the new project’s tasks because the current project is “more time-consuming” than she imagined. I have watched years go by without any progress being made on new ideas because managers always had other stuff to do first.
How can you stop that kind of thing from happening? I got my first lesson about this in the early 1990s, when I was a member of a four-person global executive committee that ran Monitor Company, a strategy consulting firm.
We had a practice of collecting anonymous upward feedback after every project. Case-team members would evaluate their case-team leader (CTL, often called an engagement manager in other firms). For the first two years we did this, one of the nearly 100 CTLs was far ahead of the others: Jan Rivkin, who has gone on to a successful academic career at Harvard Business School. Curious about his high ratings, I decided to interview the team members who had worked with him to see what he was doing.
The usual approach was straightforward: When CTLs got a new case to run and had a group of team members assigned to work on it, they’d break the project down into its component tasks and parcel them out to various people. Sometimes team members’ preferences and experiences would be considered or their requests would be acted on. But mainly the leaders would deploy their team members as they saw fit.
Bosses want a real, value-adding job. And when they haven’t been given one, they tend to create one that isn’t terribly helpful: nitpicking.
Rivkin did something different. He would sit down with each team member and talk about the role that person would like to play on the case. While he couldn’t fill every request, he was always able to go a long way in that direction. I realize now that as a young man he had figured out that the key to productive subordinates was ensuring that they all found their tasks both challenging and doable. And because Rivkin’s world at Monitor was explicitly project-based, he knew that he had to do that with every team member more than only once a year—or once ever. I didn’t ask at the time, but in retrospect I suspect he did so multiple times throughout each project.
I call such discussions chartering conversations. During them, if the manager intuits that a subordinate is nervous, she can consider splitting the responsibilities, with the subordinate taking a smaller slice. Or she might ask the subordinate to work on the task and come back with a recommendation for her to consider. If that’s still too intimidating, then the subordinate’s task could be to generate options for the manager to consider. And if that is still too daunting, then the manager will have to dig in and provide help, structuring the task enough that the subordinate can see his way to generating options. If after all that, there is still a problem, at least the manager will realize that she probably has assigned the wrong person to the job, which is a useful thing to know early.
On the other side of the coin is a situation in which the task isn’t challenging enough. Once again, the manager has to figure that out in the chartering conversation and determine a way to make the task sufficiently engaging for the subordinate, by having a dialogue about how it might be redesigned.
I had a conversation like that when I was a board member for Canada’s national tennis federation and the chair of its committee in charge of high-performance tennis. We were talking with the late Bob Brett, who had coached Boris Becker and Goran Ivanišević to Wimbledon titles, about becoming our high-performance consultant. The obvious job he could have done for us would have been to coach our very best late teens. But in talking to Brett, I quickly realized that coaching late teens just wouldn’t be stimulating enough. He had been there and done that. The answer turned out to be creating the program for and leading the coaching of Tennis Canada’s players under 12. He had never done anything like that before, and he wanted to design an entirely different program for the early development of players. And so he did—with wonderful results that helped put Canada on the global tennis map. And every time he was in town, I worked with him to tweak his assignment to keep it challenging but doable.
What’s the bottom line? If you want to make sure the people you oversee are productive, you must have a conversation with each subordinate to codesign every task so that it is both challenging and doable. Though that might sound too time-consuming, the savings on rework will dwarf the hours you spend on such conversations.
Job design is a two-way street: Each subordinate must also help design the tasks that the boss will do—or else the boss will make them up by herself, with results the subordinate may not like.
I see that happen whenever a boss gives an assignment to a report. Whether a CEO has delegated a mission to the president of a business unit, or a business unit president has handed over an initiative to a category manager, or a category manager has entrusted a brand manager with a project, the sequence of events is eerily consistent. The subordinates do an enormous amount of work to prepare the project for review by their bosses. They wait until the work is as thorough and bulletproof as possible and then present it for approval. But bosses have no interest in sagely nodding and saying, “Great work!” That is a dumb job. They want a real, value-adding job. And when they haven’t been given one, they tend to create one that isn’t terribly helpful: nitpicking. What about this? Have you thought about that?
Subordinates get this kind of reaction at all levels, right up to the very top. I’ll never forget a client’s board meeting I attended early in my career advising CEOs. It was a public company, majority owned and chaired by a brilliant telecom entrepreneur and billionaire. Minutes into the CEO’s strategy presentation, the chair began to interrupt him with increasingly aggressive questions. I realize now that the CEO had given this proud and accomplished chair a stupid job—to admire management’s wisdom. The chair took offense and decided to do another job: schooling the CEO. Understandably, the CEO didn’t appreciate that. The CEO was gone less than a year later, and the chair had to hire a new management team.
Instead of waiting until the 11th hour to give bosses a dumb job, give them smart jobs along the way. Come back early and say, “Boss, I’m defining the problem you gave me as one of streamlining our go-to-market approach to make it more cost-effective and responsive to end customers. Does that definition resonate with you? How might you modify or enhance it?” That is a real job that bosses can do and will enjoy doing, and it will help your strategy effort.
When you have possible solutions, come back and say, “Boss, based on the problem definition that we refined, I’ve come up with the following three potential solutions. Are you so allergic to any of them that it isn’t worth pursuing? Or is there another possibility floating around in your mind that I should be considering?” Again, that’s a perfect task for bosses, and in my experience of helping managers have this dialogue, bosses love it and add value in taking it on. If the CEO I advised years ago had set up his chair’s job like this, that board meeting would have gone very differently.
The key is to keep coming back with tasks that are valuable to you and are both doable and interesting for your boss. Of course, if subordinates dump problems back on bosses’ laps with a helpless shrug, bosses will react badly, as they should. But if subordinates make good progress and offer bosses real tasks, in my experience bosses will delightedly provide helpful input. The final payoff is that when employees get to the approval meeting, bosses will feel they have an important and fulfilling responsibility: affirming that the work they have done together with subordinates is sound and ready for prime time.
Carefully designing the jobs of subordinates and superiors to be both challenging and achievable is one of the most important personal-effectiveness tools for any manager. If you don’t do it well, you’ll cause those around you to redefine their jobs—and your work will be the collateral damage. But if you do it consistently, their work will add value to yours—the ultimate win-win.