On deciding what to do in the running of a modern company

Perhaps the biggest struggle in the running a successful small company—particularly one participating in knowledge-based work—is deciding “what” to do. When I worked as an employee of another company, back in the day, I only had to worry about “how” I did my job; somebody else figured out the “what”.

The question of what to do spans great distances—from the 30,000ft strategic decisions (Should we be doing client work? Should we be making products? What are our objectives?) to the micro-level daily decisions of what to do right now (Should I be writing this blog post, testing Rego or perhaps responding to that RaceSplitter support request?)

And deciding what to do is a dynamic and continual concern. Our organizations aren’t like a trains on guided tracks; they’re more like ships on the open sea, as each and every day brings shifts in wind and current; forces which—sometimes slightly, sometimes drastically—work to change our direction and pace. At the micro-level we have tools to help us more effectively “Get Things Done”, but those can also distract our attention from the macro-level issues of, “Are we doing the right things?” We have to be careful not to lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Peter Drucker gave us some insight into the magnitude of our task in 1981, in Toward the Next Economics:

To make knowledge work fully productive requires many things [Frederick Winslow] Taylor did not concern himself with. It requires objectives and goals. It requires priorities and measurements. It requires systematic abandonment of the tasks that no longer produce and of the services that are no longer needed. It also requires organization, largely along the lines of the ‘matrix organization’ which Taylor reached for in his ‘functional foremanship.’

But making knowledge work productive also requires ‘task study’ and ‘task management.’ It requires the analysis of the work itself. It requires understanding of the steps needed, their sequence and their integration into an organized process. It requires systematic provision of the information needed and of the tool needed.

All of these are concepts of ‘scientific management.’ It does not require ‘creativity.’ It requires the hard, systematic, analytical and synthesizing work which Taylor developed to deal with shoveling sand, lifting pig iron, running paper machines, or laying brick.

These challenges are both exhausting and exhilarating, but I don’t think I’d want it any other way; life’s just to short to be boring!

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?

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