Sunday, August 30, 2009

“I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right.”

That quote is from John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems from an interview he gave earlier this month to the New York Times. To be fair to him, he then said something in addition that. But for now, bear with me while I examine his quote.

I worked at Cisco towards the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, a time when the internet phenomenon was beginning to take off. His quote has particular meaning for me now, given all the research and work I’ve done related to Systems Thinking and bosses.

What struck me during my time at Cisco was a very, very strange dichotomy. On one hand, the company was very enlightened in that it allowed employees to access to everything on the internet. This was at a time when many employers blocked off access to innocuous sites such as Hotmail and news sites, fearing that employees would waste time. Cisco’s stand was roughly along the lines of, “When phones first made their entrance in the office, employers feared people would sit on the phone all day long. Hence, they let only a select few employees have phones. But today, companies give every employee a phone because they trust their employees to use phones responsibly. You can’t possibly work without a phone. And if we can trust you to use the phone responsibly, we can trust you to use the internet responsibly.”

That said, I was also struck by the command-and-control atmosphere present. It seemed that while Cisco was creating technologies that were apparently flattening hierarchies, a strong under-current of “chain-of-command” was ever-present.

I always wondered about this dichotomy. One thing I always felt strongly was that a company as enlightened as Cisco couldn’t possibly be command-and-control oriented. It simply didn’t make sense and I couldn’t figure it out. But I put it down to one of life’s mysteries and moved on.

The mystery was solved recently when I read an interview with Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers. In response to a question on his leadership style, Chambers answered, “I’m a command-and-control person. I like being able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right.”

I think this is plain crazy. How can you have 67,000 people all sincerely and whole-heartedly turn in the direction the CEO wants them to? Surely there would be some dissent, some grumbling? I’ve always thought the real measure of teamwork is not when everyone says “Yes Sir” and smartly turns when ordered to turn. You know there’s real teamwork when people are openly offering their opinions without fear rather than dutifully taking orders.

From my research, I know that the attitude of top management travels right down the chain-of-command. And so it was at Cisco – the command-and-control attitude traveled right down. Of course, Cisco is not unique in this. Virtually every modern corporation functions this way.

To his credit, Chambers continued to answer the leadership style question by saying, “But that’s the style of the past. Today’s world requires a different leadership style — more collaboration and teamwork, including using Web 2.0 technologies.”

Chambers was also asked, “What’s changed in the last few years?” His answer: “Big time, the importance of collaboration. Big time, people who have teamwork skills.”

What strikes me about this response is, what was so different about “yesterday’s world” that required a command-and-control style? People are still the same. Human beings haven’t changed much – if at all - in 10 years. Why on earth couldn’t we have more collaboration and teamwork decades ago? Saying collaboration technologies didn’t exist would be a red herring. People have been collaborating and working in teams since the Stone Age, hunting together for example.

What I feel is that Chambers has recognized that the world is a complex place; it always has been – and the way to deal with complexity is not hierarchy but teamwork and collaboration. Moreover, Chambers comes from a generation of ‘leaders’ who have grown up under the command-and-control philosophy so I don’t blame him. At least he has recognized that the old ways don’t work. But the answer lies not in new technology. It lies in new systems that have freedom as the emergent property – without real freedom, you cannot have real teamwork and real collaboration.

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