What Pirates Knew About Management!

The inability to get the right results from employees is often due to poor job design.  This is the finding of Professor Rao in a recent article in Harvard Business Review.  He explains that pirates from the 17th century understood a critical point about management and designing jobs: bundling strategic and  operational work together in a job rarely brings optimal results.  Strategic work requires  risk taking and innovative thinking.  Operational work requires conscientiousness and systematic thinking.  Pirates understood that it is rare to find individuals who excel at both strategic and operational work.

Rao explains that on a pirate ship strategic work included tasks such as target identification, command during battle, and negotiating alliances to form fleets.  Operational work included tasks such as allocating arms, distributing loot, and organizing care for the sick and injured.  It makes sense that a captain who loved the thrill of the battle would probably be impatient with organizing care for the sick.  A quartermaster general who excelled at organizing care for the sick might be less skilled at leading men into battle.  What did pirates do differently when they designed jobs?  They made the captain responsible for strategic duties and the quartermaster responsible for operational duties.

When employee performance suffers, various reasons are often given for the decline.  Frequent reasons include the following:

  • Employee did not have the right skills for the job.
  • Manager did not have effective interviewing skills.
  • Orientation process was ineffective.
  • Training was not provided.
  • Manager had poor interpersonal skills.
  • Employee was not rewarded appropriately.
  • Employee was not motivated to perform.
  • Compensation was insufficient.

These reasons are often the cause for poor employee performance, but the problem may be simpler.  The job may be designed inappropriately.  Having problems with poor employee performance?  Maybe, it is the employee.  Maybe it is the manager.  Or, maybe the job design is the culprit.  Poor job design that arbitrarily combines strategic and operational tasks in a job will likely set up an employee for failure.  It is rare to find individuals who excel at strategic and operational tasks.  Separating strategic and operational tasks, like organizations frequently do at the top level (CEO vs COO), is often a better option.

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