“The stuff I teach only works in organizations that have people in them.” This memorable quote by MIT Sloan Prof. Nelson Repenning sums up a major takeaway of the MIT Executive MBA program. All problems, no matter how complex, have a commonality: people. At the end of the day, we are all trying to work with people toward a common goal — up, down, and laterally in organizations.
While MIT prides itself as the best technical school in the world, there is an important emphasis on the science of managing people and finding positive outcomes for all stakeholders. This was reiterated during the first week of the program and continued as a theme through graduation.
Here are some examples of how this theme is interwoven into the curriculum:
Consider the context
Behaviors and culture are, to a large extent, products of context. It is tempting to see organizations as comprised of individuals who simply bring their skills to the office to influence the broader system. However, it is the overall structure that drives behavior. Star performers can be shut down in the wrong contexts. Likewise, those with potential can remain hidden.
One of my prior managers comes to mind when I think about context. He did the minimum to get by and constantly watched the clock, leaving the office as early as possible. He did not seem worthy of a promotion or have what it took to be a leader. Many organizations probably would have let him go.
However, instead of firing him, I changed his context to give him another chance. In a completely different system, he was motivated and flourished as a leader. Rather than watching the clock, he was so engaged with his work that he was the last person to leave the office.
The next time you think about firing someone or passing them over for a promotion, think about whether the context may be part of the problem. Otherwise, you may miss high potential people who are stifled by their current situation.
Look at the entire system
Leaders need to look at organizations as systems with interdependencies. Few things can be fully isolated without having an impact on other parts of the organization. Similarly, you cannot just take pieces of other systems and apply them in your own without adaptation and a nuanced understanding. For example, an airline cannot just adopt practices from another successful airline and expect the same results.
Systems thinking helps leaders uncover how changes in one part of a system can impact the other parts. It is a philosophy that shows unanticipated ripple effects. By using systems thinking, leaders can create more reasonable plans to move forward, but go slowly enough to measure how the changes are impacting other parts of the organization.
In my organization, I used systems modeling around recruitment processes to see how our plans might impact other parts of the system. That not only allowed us to think differently, but to experiment with iterative steps toward change.
The bottom line
The real challenge of management is driving people to meet common goals. If you don’t have the right leaders and managerial systems in place in the right context, you won’t get very far. You have to bring the pieces together and make the whole system work.
Adam Berman, EMBA '19, is President and CEO of Legacy Lifecare in Peabody, MA and President of Chelsea Jewish Lifecare in Chelsea, MA.