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This post is part of a podcast and blog series called Business Second Opinion, where I give a contrarian view on ideas presented in publications like the Harvard Business Review. This time, we’ll be looking at the history of work design by reviewing the individuals and paradigms responsible for the state of work today.

You can listen to the corresponding podcast episode #111 and subscribe to future shows on iTunes, Sticher, Audio Boom, or Google Play.

Explore designs and practices in business, understand where they are sourced from, as well as their effects.

Frederick Winslow Taylor - Scientific Management

Taylor brought the idea of managers into the workplace at a time when there was no such thing as skilled work, only work.

He recommended four guidelines:

  1. Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks
  2. Scientifically select and train each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves.
  3. Provide “Detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker’s discrete task” (Montgomery 1997:250).
  4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks.

Quetelet - Average

Quetelet introduced the idea of human averages. The average was the ideal to be pursued, and is a prototype representative of a group.

After his introduction of the Average Man we have imaged all members of a group according to a shared set of characteristics. This is a source of stereotyping and judging, including types of workers.

  • Florence Nightingale applied Quetelet’s study to nursing and pronounced that the average man is God’s will and people must figure out how to match that.
  • Averagism was modified during the industrial revolution to create standards and procedures to better manage productivity.
  • A mathematician named Galton took Quetelet’s concept and extended it to above and below average and the idea of gifted and useless. This was the beginning of ranking people relative to one another.
  • Todd Rose from the Institute at Harvard Education noted that the idea of average is a false premise and has been proven so for decades. Instead, each individual is unique and cannot be compared or ranked.
  • It is all based on a class one error, meaning that after the error, all conclusions that follow are false and cannot be extended to get useful work design.

John Watson - Behaviorism

Watson addressed the issue of being unable to control workers to the same degree they could machines.

  • Workers were difficult to standardize and Watson said it was because they were not machines, “but mammals” with a set of motivations to consider.
  • Established a rat laboratory to learn how to manage the motivations of others, which introduced the concepts of incentives and rewards.
  • Kept Galton’s and Quetelet’s class one errors of averages, rating, and ranking.
  • Anchored in the idea that motivation is external since that was all that could be studied.
  • We kept Taylor’s managers and managing system but gave managers the tools to manipulate people.
  • We now know there are class one errors in what Watson added, like that humans are not identical to rats and have so many more abilities. For example, the study of rats leaves out how the executive center of the prefrontal cortex in humans, and abilities to engage in alternative interpretations and concepts increase innovations and problem-solving in complex situation.
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Companies began attempting to improve worker engagement through making employees happy, and incorporating incentivized programs or benefits. The thought was offering them enough incentives and they’ll be happy. This didn’t work for a number of reasons:

  1. Studies show that extrinsic motivation, or giving rewards to drive behavior, is a terrible motivator. It creates increased dissatisfaction and disengagement because people get caught up in getting the reward and often game the system
  2. The more a company tries to bribe their employees into being happy, the less engaged they become.
  3. People become addicted to praise, which has been shown to hurt employee’s ability to be happy.

The Human Potential Movement

Sees that people can grow and change, exercise awareness, and expand their opportunities. Focus on the individual became critical as well as their personal ability to manage themselves.

There are three major approaches to work design being used in this model:

  1. The scientific management methods of Frederick Taylor.
  2. Behavioral methods of John Watson (and student BF Skinner of Stanford University).
  3. The modernist movement, centered on humans, for which Tavistock is an example; current version is the Holacracy approach.

Developmental Approach

A group broke off very early from Eric Trist at Tavistock and created a different stream of ideas known as the Developmental Approach. There have been testaments to its worth and workability for almost 60 years with multiple generations of practitioners and successful implementations in diverse organizations.

  • Incubated and spread from Procter and Gamble and particularly the Soap Division in the 1960s.
  • Called the Developmental Approach since it had a different set of beliefs about humans which is what led to the alternate paths from Eric Trist’s and Fred Emery’s work at Tavistock.
  • Charles Krone saw that there were gaps in the Socio-Tech and sensitivity models of Tavistock, that they were missing the idea of development of the person in the context of building a great business.
  • Krone created the foundation of what came to be called Developmental Organization which engaged each worker directly in marketplace decisions and in innovating rapidly for customer and marketplace change.
  • The Developmental Approach as a work design is not based on traditional management practices or human potential ideals. It is based on a living systems view that is designed for ensuring disruptive innovation, even requiring it. This benefits all stakeholders, not just investors (traditional system), or workers (human potential).
  • Achieves a more direct and distinct benefit for each customer, co-creator (including workers but also suppliers and contractors), Earth as an invested party, and communities.
  • The benefit achieves the meaning and participatory goals of Holacracy, but at a higher level.
  • Helps run the business as a whole, not just a team.
  • Bureaucracy, in both the traditional and human potential designs, is radically reduced, while creating a focus for the organization.

The Regenerative Business

To learn more about the developmental approach to work design and how to apply it in your organization, see my latest book, The Regenerative Business.

Originally published at on April 3, 2018.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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