Slump may require managers to act more, reflect less

Leap before you look. This flip-flop of the well-known saying is exactly what top-level management must do to improve productivity, theorizes Karl Weick, a professor at Cornell University's business school.

In trying to work out of this recession, Professor Weick says, managers are doing too much planning and analyzing, and not enough acting. ''The manager who acts and watches closely to see what he has done understands his current situation more fully, and is better able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

''The person who is in trouble is the person who tries to think all this through before taking any action,'' Professor Weick explained at a Cornell alumni gathering here.

The professor tempers this new axiom by saying it should be done with moderation. Don't elminate planning or data analysis altogether, but start taking many more smaller risks and smaller actions. These actions can often produce creative solutions, he says.

He suggests managers react more to items passing through the in-box. ''Being reactive provides a larger number of successes and failures, which makes you more adaptable and provides more occasions to learn. Many of the things you respond to will prove to be nothing but a flash in the pan. But some will not, and that's the point.''

At 3M Company in Minneapolis, employees experience a large amount of successes and failures. Management encourages a lot of experimentation, especially in the laboratories.

''We have what we call the '15 percent' philosophy,'' says Robert Adams, senior vice-president for 3M's technical division. ''People can take a few hours each day to work on their own experiments. Then down the road, they can show us whether the project is working or not. If it doesn't work, no one needs to know about it.''

The method doesn't produce too much wasted time, Mr. Adams says, ''because not that much effort has been put into the various independent projects.''

Mr. Adams says the company tries to get other departments - such as sales and marketing - to use this philosophy, too. But, he says, the many experiments and ''small risks'' must be made in the overall context of company goals: ''The person has to have some feel as to where the company is going. A product worker should know, for example, that 3M is interested in new chemical-coating products.''

Is this method productive for 3M? Adams says: ''If you measure productivity by the number of useful ideas you come up with, then it's been productive. While the project is being done, it may seem unproductive because you can't always see where it's going.''

To push the ''productivity through action'' concept, managers have to practice what they preach, says Peter Moffett, president of the American Productivity Center. ''More managers are paying lip service to productivity. They need to be good models for their workers by showing their commitment, using their resources, and taking some action.''

Professor Weick has some other theories, too. For instance, he says that to make good decisions a manager should rely more on hands-on experience and observation than on what the data or figures tell him. The manager should use data to back up decisions, not prompt them. Also, the professor of organizational behavior suggests that in a more complex business world, managers need to be more complex. They must have broader vision. Here he puts in a strong plug for the liberal-arts education of top management.

''Weick's ideas are a reaction against the trend of the 70s that said managers had to be strategists and analysts,'' says Homer Hagedorn, head of Arthur D. Little's section on organizational and managerial effectiveness. ''Active management is a fundamental requirement which hasn't changed. It's just there is an upsurge of interest in it.'' For the last eight months, there has been a rash of articles criticizing strategic planning and excessive analysis, Hagedorn says. ''It's healthy, so far, but it runs the risk of turning into a fad.''

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