II Myths Blocking Agile Performance

Management Myth # 1—Job Specification Improves Performance

When I left school as a “baby boomer, " my parents encouraged me to consider an occupation where I could specialize and so have job security. Their reasoning was well-intended, simple, but misguided: If you can find a niche where you can use a specialized set of skills, you can define a market segment for yourself This line of thinking was predicated on the stable and relatively predictable, pregbbalized marketplace. The logic of my parent’s argument no longer applies; the rules have fundamentally changed

I vividly recall an actual conversation with my father about my career options in my senior year of school. At the time, I had no idea of what I wanted to do with my life. As an aside, I’ve always admired 16 or 17 year olds who have a crystal clear idea of what they want to do with their lives. It can be a stressful and uncertain time for young people and their parents. Although I was more interested in humanities than the sciences, my parents suggested I consider optometry.

“Optometry is a specialized area. People will always need glasses and you’ll be safe in that field," said my father, with some conviction. “You need to find

Specialization breeds a “paint by numbers” mentality: This is how we do things. We’ve always done things this way. If we follow the system we’ll be successful. These statements portray the prevailing assumptions of specialization.

© The Author(s) 2017

T. Baker, Performance Management for Agile Organizations, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40153-9_4

a specialty; something that is secure and will be around forever. At some stage in everyone’s life, they need glasses, ” Dad continued, justifying his statement.

My father’s argument made sense to me at the time. However, I wasn’t particular excited by the thought of working in the field of vision care. Optical laser surgery became possible a decade after our conversation. People now have the option of correcting their eyesight by surgery, instead of purchasing a set of spectacles or contact lenses. It’s little wonder, then, that optometrists are diversifying into other areas, such as selling sunglasses.

A specialized profession with a seemingly secure future is not quite as sheltered now as it once was. But like most professions and occupations, diversification and the flexible deployment of a skills-set is the new reality.

Many optometrists, for instance, have flexibly deployed their professional expertise to offerings beyond vision care to include the diagnosis and management of ocular disease.1 This has been part of a decades-long trend to enlarge optometry’s scope of practice and to maintain or grow revenues lost to companies specializing in laser surgery and dispensing eye wear.

My father was right in one sense: The optometry profession has evolved and protected itself by expanding into other areas ofhealth care; but it’s being done through flexible deployment, instead of specialization.

In the following eight chapters of Part II, I focus on eight beliefs that negatively impact a business’s capacity to exercise the agility they need to prosper. Each chapter is structured in the same way. First, I define the dysfunctional thinking and practice holding business back from performing with agility. Second, I illustrate the link between current practices and scientific management, or what I sometimes refer to as Taylorism.2 Third, I explain how the practice dulls agile performance. Drawing on the Organizational Agility model defined in Chap. 3, I cite the dimensions hampered most by the misguided management belief. Fourth, I propose a better option to replace the dysfunctional practice. These proposed practices are all approaches diametrically opposite to those used in scientific management. Fifth, I share some application tools characterizing the new approach and illustrate how it aids agility. And finally, I reflect on the results of using these practices and tools.

So we begin with the concept of specialization.

In a business context, specialization is a common differentiation strategy. Finding a niche market and dominating it with focused knowledge, products, or services has been a highly effective competitive strategy for over a century. Since the 1980s, marketing gurus have preached the competitive advantage of specialization. Similarly, the employee has been told the same thing: Develop a specialized skills-set and apply it in a particular field to retain job security.

There are numerous illustrations of successful companies electing to specialize, such as lending institutions specializing in home loans, construction companies specializing in commercial property, and so on. But there’s a downside to operating in a niche market. A business striving to corner a specialized market may sacrifice their scope for agility. These companies are inclined to replicate their external strategy, internally. More specifically, the enterprise segments and organizes itself around functions or specialized clusters of activity. This division of work is not dissimilar from the Ford Motor Company assembly line 100 years ago. The organizing of people around specific functions—while doubtlessly efficient—creates challenges for flexibility, adaptability, and responsiveness.

One of the agile performance barriers is the job specification. The practice of erecting clearly defined boundaries around jobs makes sense on the surface. Job specification is designed with the purpose of controlling the work of the employee; to make them accountable for a set of clearly defined tasks. So what’s the price to pay for this clarity and accountability?

A smart and agile enterprise has three characteristics, I think, when it comes to its labor force. First, it has a highly skilled workforce. Second, there is a high degree of flexibility within that workforce. And third, the employees are in a continual state of honing and improving their skills. Job specification impedes these fundamentals; in particular, the last two characteristics. The inherently inflexible job specification can, for instance, slow internal mobility. Learning skills outside the explicit limits of the employee’s job description is not encouraged, and even discouraged. These limitations raise a question: Can an enterprise achieve the three characteristics of an agile workforce and—at the same time—reap the benefits of job specification?

An alternative approach—-flexible employment—doesn’t necessarily abandon job specification altogether. Flexible deployment means the employee accumulates a range of skills and competencies outside the scope of their job specification. In short, they have a broader skills-set. In practice, flexible deployment doesn’t, however, necessarily entail becoming a jack-of-all-trades; it isn’t about transitioning from a specialist to a generalist.

Through the flexible deployment of their skills-set, the employee is capable of appreciating and understanding a bigger scope of operational activity outside their job boundaries. The systemic deployment of competencies across the enterprise, leads to better organizational adaptability and maneuverability. Being more adaptable and maneuverable contributes to greater responsiveness, increased speed, and more agility.

More on that later. But first, we need to understand specialization and its origins.

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