I had a chance to interview Ed Muzio, a celebrated expert in business management, about his new book, Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team (An Inc. Original, 2018), which I reviewed on this site. Iterate gets to the crux of what managers must put in place to effectively problem solve and make informed choices at every decision point.
Explain what it means to iterate and how that applies to an organization.
To iterate is to take a step, learn from it, then take the next best step incorporating the new information. As each step moves you forward, it also gives you information, and you use that information to adjust your next step. Iteration is the best way to optimize a route that can’t be foreseen in advance.
It’s also how the most effective organizations achieve their objectives. We can write goals all day about market share, offerings and improvements, but we can’t foresee exactly what it will take to reach them. Markets, customers, technologies, and regulatory and geographical constraints evolve constantly. If the organization doesn’t iterate — if it doesn’t use the information from each step to inform the next — it’s going to waste money and lose time.
What makes your book, as you say, about the real work of management?
Managers are key to iteration because they alone have visibility into desired results, plus authority to redirect resources. They’re the ones who direct the management teams in which the steps are taken and the new information received.
And yet, the myriad advice you see for managers is almost exclusively about managing individual managers instead of teams: setting goals, holding people accountable, giving feedback, resolving employee problems, supporting engagement, enabling development. This is tremendously important, and organizations fail when it’s not done well. But it’s not enough to make the organization iterate.
My book defines the management practices that make iteration happen within the management teams. The techniques are straightforward, and they’re complementary to traditional management functions. But they’re honestly not well understood, and that’s why I wrote Iterate. Anyone who runs a management team without these practices is doing their team, their organization and their career a huge disservice.
What role do “Verbalized Summary Outputs” play in keeping communications streamlined?
That’s the term I use for managers walking around and reminding people, repeatedly, of the exact output they’re tasking their group to deliver. (As I said, these techniques aren’t complicated!) This may sound basic and even repetitious, but a lot of good comes of it: It cements in team members’ minds what they’re supposed to accomplish as a group, not just as individuals.
It provides multiple opportunities to make adjustments to the group’s intended output. It makes any such modifications more apparent to the whole group. And, it serves as the basis for the team to ask the essential question, “What new information have we learned, and what (if anything) should we adjust to maximize our likelihood of delivering our outputs?”
You talk in the book about forward-looking data. Why is that so important?
The only way to discover that you’re headed in the wrong direction is by looking forward at the difference between your desired outcome and the result of your current course. This seems obvious, but consider the graphs you might see in management meetings. How often do they display only results-to-date, perhaps alongside the original plan?
Without two distinct versions of the future — “What we thought would happen” (plan) and “What we now think will happen” (forecast) — you can’t clearly perceive a variance between the result you want and the likely outcome of your current course. If you can’t perceive that problem, you can’t adjust resources to solve it, and that means you’re unable to iterate.
What does “Front Line Self-Sufficiency” look like in an iterative organization?
Those all-important forecasts have to come from somewhere, and in an iterative organization that somewhere is the front line. Frontline employees are uniquely positioned to understand what the work really entails, what can be accomplished, and in how much time. But to tap this intelligence you can’t have a front line that’s consistently told by members of management how things are going — you need them doing the telling.
Front Line Self-Sufficiency increases their ownership and autonomy and enables them to provide their supervisors with accurate forecasts. And it’s those real, accurate, ground-level forecasts that create the truthful forward-looking data which allows the organization to iterate.
Why are “Linked Teams“ critical to organizational success?
Linked Teams is a way of conceptualizing the organization not as relationships between individuals, but as relationship between teams. This helps managers work to coordinate and share resources across the organization, rather than encouraging them to isolate and protect those resources from one another.
The big lie of the “org chart” is that everyone is working as an individual, reporting to another individual. The truth of Linked Teams is, it’s the tensions and connections created by interrelated groups of people that really moves the organization toward its goals — even though the picture can’t be drawn as a simple template.
In the end, that’s what Iterate is really all about: recognizing the dynamic, complex, and often confusing ways in which people must interact if they’re going to get the work done, and then running things in a way that acknowledges and supports that reality — instead of ignoring it or wishing it away. In my experience, it’s an approach most managers are eager to embrace.
Learn more at Iterate Now.