Most organizations are “locked in an industrial mindset.”  They think of their workers as cogs in the wheels of progress, doing what they’re told, not smart enough to figure out how best to do their jobs or improve their organizations. Managers in these organizations are needed to tell workers what to do and how to do it.

That “Steam Engine” mindset, as described by Jonathan Gifford and Mark Powell in their new book, My Steam Engine Is Broken: Taking the organization from the industrial era to the Age of Ideas, creates a command-and-control culture that has become a barrier to success in companies today. The authors write:

  1. Many organizations have a culture that is still unconsciously modelled on the managerial, ‘Steam MySteamEngineIsBroken-cover-web2Engine’ mindset of the industrial era; a culture which is fundamentally unsuited to the modern workplace.
  2. There are a number of core Steam Engine behaviors which actively prevent or destroy the things that modern organizations know that they most need from their employees – engagement, commitment and creativity, amongst others.
  3. Addressing and changing these core Steam Engine behaviors – little by little and piece by piece – will in time achieve a radical transformation of the organization, creating a working environment suited to the Age of Ideas and freeing up the energies of the organization’s members.

Some organizations are experimenting with alternatives to the “Steam Engine”. For example, Zappos is shaping its own form of Holacracy , Semco Partners has become known for a radical form of industrial democracy, and the Valve Corporation has eliminated managers.

A culture of command-and-control is a barrier to organizational learning. It’s a barrier to creativity, innovation, job satisfaction, engagement, self-motivation, risk-taking, communication, adaptability, self-respect, and retaining talent. Without these qualities, an organization can’t learn.

Gifford’s and Powell’s conclusion is that leaders need to realize that they might be able to control some processes but they can’t control people. High performance organizations need a culture that allows workers to grow at their pace and in their own way.

The authors ask us a provocative question, "What do you observe as examples of organizations ...where the comfort blanket of management control is stifling the natural creativity of people in the organization?"

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