The New Order: Work Mimics Life

Tom Peters

Many firms are moving almost all employees into self-managed, multifunction teams that schedule their own work, develop budgets, and deal directly with customers and vendors. Such skills have long been the province of the senior and middle ranks. So it's hardly surprising that many execs are asking: Are workers up to the challenge? To
understand why in nine cases out of ten the answer is "yes," just look at life off the job. "Managing" day-to-day affairs encompasses most big-business challenges.

1. Long-term view. Corporate chiefs, not workers, are the ones who have a problem here! The chief may be a slave to next quarter's earnings, but the average "real person" understands investment. For instance, workers routinely turn their wallets inside out to buy a house—and often undertake steep, 20-year tuition-savings programs for their toddlers.

(On the job, the story is the same. For example, workers usually comprehend better than their bosses the value of buying quality goods from vendors.)

2. Complex trade-offs. Family life is trade-offs. Take that $250 bonus to the store and buy some new clothes? Put the bucks aside for a long-desired vacation? Or toward a new car? The conflicting demands confronting self-managed work teams can be no more complicated than such constant, personal choices.

3. Self-management. Experts say the shift to self-managed teams takes years of training and preparation. Really? What's a family but a self-managed team? Complex "flex-time scheduling algorithms" for a seven-person work team pale beside the logistics of a family with two working adults (holding three jobs between them) and a pair of teenagers. There are potholes in the road to effective self-management at work, and, heaven knows, there are dysfunctional families. But the idea of "self-managed units" hardly arrived last year.

4. No job descriptions. Some bosses doubt their employees can get through the day without job descriptions and a policy manual. So tell me, how many families have job descriptions and manuals?

I'm all for making "to do" lists, at work and at home. But face it, we juggle lots of balls and handle ambiguity and surprises at home (and in our community activities) without resorting to written guidance.

5. Budgets. Some companies handle budgets well. Some don't. The same is true for self-managed work teams. And families. But there's nothing alien about budgeting to the average 26-year-old worker, let alone the 36-year-old. The budget tight-wire act is about the same for families and work groups. (If budgets are more complex at work, it's usually because accountants have obscured the obvious in a blizzard of technobabble aimed at enhancing their own status.)

6. Relationship management. The bowling team is tied for first and you're the anchor. The showdown's Saturday, at the same time your 13-year-old starts his first youth soccer-league game. What's your call?

"Investing in relationship development" is essential in fluid organizational configurations. Professional trainers insist it's an arcane art that only they can untangle. Hogwash! It's true that lots of people make lousy decisions about managing relationships (hence our high divorce rate), but nothing about the process requires a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

7. Network management. Yet another "complex" must. But new? Many workers lead fund-raising drives for their club or children's school; chair the church Building and Grounds Committee; coach Little League; lead a Brownie troop. That is, they can pass the basic test—and the advanced course—in working in networks with "outsiders" who participate only if they're motivated.

8. Dealing with vendors and customers. Suppliers and customers are part of many modern work teams. And, ho hum "special skills" must be acquired to handle the new setup.

Huh? The average adult routinely works with numerous "outside vendors"—plumbers, dry cleaners, orthodontists, and occasionally realtors, contractors, and car dealers.

9. Projects. Projects, rather than repetitive tasks, are now the basis for most value-added in business. But there's nothing mysterious about projects—except bosses' long-standing belief that workers can't deal with them. Consider a typical weekend: Sam and Sally do their fall planting, attack a complex home-improvement project, work with their 14-year-old on first-year algebra. See my point?

10. Constant improvement. Listen up. It's the biggest shift since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution—i.e., asking workers to use their heads. It may be the biggest shift at work. But what else is the average day all about in the suburbs—or in the ghetto for that matter -- other than taking initiatives? Sure, we may give in and watch the full slate of NFL games next Sunday. But mostly we spend our time trying new stuff and coping with surprises, tiny and large.

There is a lot of change going on in the workplace. But oddly enough, the result is making work life look more, not less, like real life. The new "at-work skills" are complex. But so is living!

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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