I learned everything about business from the movies: You just got punk’d by Idi Amin

Why plod around piles of management books when you can watch a good movie? Need an MBA? Join Netflix, dude.

So spot the “management problem’ in this clip from The Last King of Scotland:


The Last King of Scotland is about a fictional young Scottish physician, Nicholas, who serves as Ugandan strongman Idi Amin’s personal physician and advisor in his early years in power. In an early scene, Idi Amin decides to evict all Indians from Uganda, a disastrous move that plunges the economy into a depression (the Indians were the lynchpin of the Ugandan economy). After his announcement, Nicholas rushes to Amin’s office and tells him he can’t do this, that it will destroy the economy and Uganda’s standing in the world. Amin looks at him darkly and says, “Who are you? A nobody. Why is a nobody trying to tell me what to do?” Nick takes the clue and leaves unceremoniously.

In this clip, Amin accuses him of not warning him to not evict the Indians from Uganda. Nick protests, so Amin amends his complaint: “Why didn’t you persuade me? Why didn’t you persuade me?”

There’s the supreme management-employee dilemma in a nutshell. Find out more after the break.

Managers and business owners are responsible for their decisions, but everyone they manage is part of the decision. If the manager is about to make a mistake, what’s the role of the employee? (Assuming, of course, that the manager is not Idi Amin!) How far should employees go to prevent mistakes? And, if you allow employees to question decisions, how do you prevent what I call “false negatives” which happen when an employee rationally judges a decision to be wrong but doesn’t have a complete enough picture to properly judge? Employees, after all, can only judge from the parameters of their own responsibilities and are subject to what I call the fallacy of the cubicle, the tendency of employees and managers to see their limited responsibilities as the do-all and end-all of the business. (“Boy, if it weren’t for proofreading, this whole business would go down the tubes!”)

In my criticism of Greg Mankiw a month ago, I talked about how ineffective Mankiw was in preventing Bush’s headlong rush into disastrous fiscal and economic policies. Did he agree with these addle-brained economic decisions? If he disagreed with them, why did he see his job as merely supporting the President’s policies? Why didn’t he talk the President out of policies that even to the dimmest of non-economic minds looked wrong from the start? “Why didn’t you persuade me, Greg?”

And how do you apply this insight to your own business or team? Do you want your team to sit silently by while you make a bad decision? Do you want them to go back to their desks mumbling among themselves about what an idiot you are and the whole thing is going to crash because of your hair-brained air-headed decisions? Or, on the other hand, do you want them to argue with you every step you take, even when they don’t know a hill of beans? Do you want a screaming and fighting and clawing match every time you need to make a decision?

I once attended a meeting of Iomega upper management, marketing management, and major vendors servicing Iomega’s marketing. In that meeting, the Vice President of Marketing presented a new advertising campaign and the focus group research that “proved” it was an effective campaign. As the creative was passed around, people began to mumble among themselves about how terrible the ads were (and they were); at my table, which included veteran, award-winning advertisers, we were in universal agreement that the ads were mediocre.

No-one said anything. The ads were mediocre and significantly underperformed the previous ad campaign. As “effective” as the focus group research proved these ads to be, Iomega is a significantly smaller company now than it was then.

A roomful of smart and capable people allowed a major company to do the wrong thing.

Like everything else in management, the solution starts with structure and transparency. (You never go wrong by defaulting to structure and transparency, never.) It doesn’t matter how you solve it, just that the overall solution has structure and is understood in its parts and purpose by everyone involved.

As a manager and business owner, I use something I call “structured dissent.” It’s simply a set of rules and understandings. Structured dissent looks like this:

a.) Everyone in the organization depends on the right decisions being made, so everyone is responsible to make sure that team or business decisions are made correctly. Nobody has the luxury of “just doing their job.” That’s how people end up getting laid off. Everyone has to understand their role in the health of the team, organization, or business.

b.) Ultimately, however, the manager or business owner has to make the final decision, because they and they alone take the full consequences. No matter how wrong their final decision may be, it’s their job to commit to a decision. That’s a key component for structural dissent: it’s the managers job to “own” the decision and everyone must understand this feelingly. The “problem” with not being a manager is you don’t get to make the final decision and may often have to live with decisions that you disagree with; the “benefit” is that you don’t get the blame for a bad decision.

c.) Employees can and should be involved in most decisions as they’re being formulated; it’s up to you to decide which class of decisions involve employee input. Simply launching a decision out of the blue on employees does not use the most powerful assets they bring to the organization: commitment, loyalty, energy, creativity, and intelligence.

d.) All input is welcome as decisions are formulated. There are no limits.

e.) Once the decision is made, it’s everyone’s job to get on board 100%.

f.) I personally follow the “no-I-told-you-so” rule. If, in making a decision, I advocate a position which turns out to be correct, I don’t bring it to anyone’s attention. No “I told you so.” However, if I turn out to be wrong, I approach the people who were right and let them know they were right. Why? Well, first, if someone doesn’t know they were wrong when events prove them to be wrong, well, telling them won’t help. On the other hand, if you’ve been proven wrong, you need to let people know or they’ll think you’re stupid as well as incompetent. Acknowledging that you took the wrong position means that you’ll probably not do it again.

g.) Finally, there’s the “window-mirror” rule: if a decision is successful, credit goes to the team (a good manager is a “window” for credit); if a decision is unsuccessful, blame rests solely on the person who made the decision (a good manager is a “mirror” for blame). In other words, to get 100% from employees, you take the blame and pass on the credit.

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