Introductory essay

Written by the educators who created Leading Wisely, a brief look at the key facts, tough questions and big ideas in their field. Begin this TED Study with a fascinating read that gives context and clarity to the material.

Understanding management means understanding people. What motivates us to engage deeply and perform powerfully at work? How do we inspire that in teams? What are the best ways to organize ourselves to exploit opportunities and solve problems? These are critical questions for all leaders who share the goal of thriving in a global, digital, fast-paced future.

There are countless ways we can approach those topics, and diverse perspectives to consider—as is evident from the thousands of management manuals, podcasts, executive seminars and more. For example, among the TED Talks included in Leading Wisely, Itay Talgam shares a lyrical metaphor on the style of the great conductors, while Clay Shirky delivers a statistical deconstruction of the power of informal networks. It's precisely this enormous scope and variety that defines the reality of modern management and which makes it so fascinating, and so vital.
Modern thinking on management — from teaching and research inside universities to the way the world's most revered businesses organize themselves — has continuously evolved throughout the 20th and early 21st century. What's more, the pace of this evolution is increasing: the TED Talks in this collection cover a number of topics that didn't even exist ten years ago! This means successful managers must learn quickly, forecast trends and execute wisely.

Division of labor and beyond: Management theory is born

Industrialization shaped the work of the first management theorists in the US and Europe, where efforts to perfect new production processes gave management a practical focus and scientific method. Mining engineer Henri Fayol was one of the first to set out clear principles of management, which were formed through experiences organizing labor and machinery to extract coal in the most cost-efficient way. In the early decades of the 20th century Fayol identified six core principles of management: forecasting, planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating, and controlling. A century later, these key principles still shape our ideas about management, even though we may implement them in more sophisticated ways.

In Fayol's time, managers enacted these six principles through authority and discipline, and the regimentation of that approach created as many problems as it did advantages. For example, perfecting production techniques through the division of labor involved a systematic breaking-down of production into repetitive, individual tasks, or 'piece work'. This formed the foundation of a new mass-production economy and significantly improved the standard of living for many workers and consumers--but the work was often tedious and didn't draw upon the worker's ideas or abilities in any meaningful way.

Fayol's contemporary, Henry Ford, provides the most famous example. In his quest to mass-produce an affordable automobile, Ford identified 84 specific steps required to assemble the Model T and hired Frederick Taylor, the creator of "scientific management," to conduct time and motion studies on the factory floor. In this way, Ford reasoned, he would know exactly how long it should take his workers to complete each of the 84 steps, and he could direct the exact motions each worker should use so that the assembly proceeded with maximum efficiency. Ford also reasoned that he could reduce the time spent on each task if his workers didn't have to move from one assembly to the next. So in 1913, inspired by a grain mill conveyor belt he'd seen, Ford introduced the first moving assembly line for factory production.

Only a year later, Ford surprised everyone when he announced that he would double wages and reduce working hours at his Detroit auto plant. Wall Street investors were dismayed. Media around the world reported Ford's announcement as a philanthropic gesture, or speculated that Ford was trying to create a bigger market for his Model T by creating a new middle-class American workforce. The reality? Ford realized he could lower turnover, and the costs of recruiting and training new employees, by offering better conditions and pay.

Beyond efficiency: Valuing people

When he raised wages and shortened the work day, Ford signaled that employee satisfaction was an essential element of successful management. There was a growing appetite to understand workers in this context and, more than that, to take a sociological or even anthropological viewpoint.

Although sociologists like Emile Durkheim had begun this work in the late 19th century, the backlash against division of labor gained momentum in the 1920s and '30s, when the horrors of the First World War fueled disillusionment with wide-scale mechanization. Many felt that workers were treated as machinery measured by volume of production alone.

In contrast, Elton Mayo highlighted the importance of social ties and a sense of belonging in the workplace. In Mayo's view, managers had to acknowledge these needs and listen to their employees, in order to make workers feel valued.

Mayo's ideas originated in part from his work at the Hawthorne General Electric Plant in Chicago, where he measured the effect of lighting levels on employees at the plant. Mayo found that simply taking an interest in the activities and opinions of staff produced a motivating effect—though when his work concluded and the plant returned to business as usual, productivity dropped.

Although Mayo championed a different kind of dynamic between managers and their subordinates in order to improve conditions and increase output, workers were given no real decision making power. Nevertheless, his work advanced management theory in a significant way, and decades later we can appreciate its influence on the people-oriented, more democratic operation of many modern companies like Semco. Its CEO, TED speaker Ricardo Semler, acknowledges that "it takes a leap of faith about losing control" to reorient a company so that it truly takes care of its people and treats them as its most important asset.

The new leader

As our conception of the workforce changed – from assembly lines of replaceable robots in the era of Fayol and Ford, to individuals with diverse talents to empower (and exploit) today — so has the role of the leader. The command-and-control approach – appropriate and effective in factory-like environments – has given way to newer, more nuanced approaches to leadership that lean more heavily on inspiration and persuasion.

Modern management theorist and TED speaker Simon Sinek believes that great leaders inspire action because they think, act and communicate from 'the inside out'—beginning with and focusing primarily on their core beliefs and values. Sinek suggests that people, whether they're your employees or customers, "don't buy what you do—they buy why you do it." Hiring people who understand and embrace these core beliefs and values, Sinek claims, means they don't work just for a paycheck—they work with "blood and sweat and tears."

When people see their work in this way, the rules and incentives that leaders have leaned on in the past to manage and motivate employees may be unnecessary. In fact, as TED speakers Dan Pink and Barry Schwartz observe, they may actually do harm. Pink shows through a series of surprising experiments that traditional carrot-and-stick motivators like bonuses and pay-for-performance plans can actually decrease creative thinking and employee engagement. What's more, according to Barry Schwartz, these incentives, coupled with an over-reliance on rigid procedures, "cause people to lose morale and the activity to lose morality." Schwartz believes that moral skill, moral will, and practical wisdom are absolutely essential if organizations want to deal with complex challenges in a smart and timely way.

The importance of innovation

Up to now, we've focused on how we organize resources—and in particular, human resources—to complete tasks and meet our goals. However, this alone doesn't equip managers to launch a successful startup to compete in a fast-moving global marketplace, or to keep pace with consumers' changing values, wants and needs. Innovation and marketing are central tenets of modern management, too. How do you harness market knowledge to position yourself as distinctive and essential, and to predict what people will want and use? How can you empower team members to come up with ingenious and elegant ideas?

In an earlier era, innovation often occurred in the first stage of production, which involved creating the product blueprint; innovation may also have altered the production process in order to bring costs down. But today, organizations increasingly aspire toward innovation at all stages, in order to compete and to thrive.

To enable innovation, leaders encourage a diversity of perspectives and empower employees to contribute in unconventional, 'left-field' ways; quite often, this plays out in ways that contradict the chain of command and strict discipline which characterized early management theory. For example, some companies formalize the freedom to experiment with 'left-field' ideas in programs like Google's "20% time" and Apple's "Blue Sky" program; these provide contractual 'free time' for employees to work on their own projects, which the company may later adopt and launch. (It's worth noting that this idea goes as far back as Edison, who encouraged a young Henry Ford to play around with combustion engines in his spare time while Ford worked at Edison's light bulb manufacturing plant.)

Ideas from everywhere: The new "crowd-sourced" workforce and on-call experts

Along with enabling creativity within their teams, in recent years, forward-looking organizations have become more sophisticated in harnessing participation from the public. Through social media platforms, open-source development environments and other collaborative tools, we're increasingly able to amass ideas from around the globe, and from people traditionally considered 'consumers' rather than the 'producers' of our organizations' goods and services.

This signals a profound reversal from Henry Ford's earlier efforts to gather people under one roof around a specific task; rather, as TED speaker Clay Shirky notes, we're now able to take the question or task to the people—who may not be 'employees' as we've traditionally thought of them, and who may never meet us face-to-face in our offices. Shirky predicts that in the coming decades, loosely coordinated groups will be increasingly influential and that "one arena at a time, one institution at a time" more rigidly managed organizations will move towards different and more open methods of management.

The technology that enables crowdsourced solutions also allows leaders to tap 'expert' knowledge from around the world. We have instant access to advice from thought leaders and consultants when we're overwhelmed by the array of information and the pace of innovation in today's world—but then managers must discern what's most helpful to achieve the organization's goals, filtering out what is and isn't useful. What's more, we need to be judicious about when and how we call in the experts: in her TED Talk, Noreena Hertz argues that the constant urge to defer to experts is damaging our ability to think independently and solve our own problems. Indeed, as you make your way through the talks in this TED Study, you'll need to decide for yourself what best applies to you and your team.

All work and no play: The need for balance

Today's technology enables managers and their teams to be connected to the office 24/7, if we want to be, and organizations can draw on workforces from all over the world, at short notice. This creates amazing opportunities and thorny problems for managers. For example, how should a manager interact with employees who may be scattered on several continents, working for multiple employers on several simultaneous projects?

Technology companies developed ways to manage the 'scrum' of work and organize loose networks of employees and stakeholders, in order to coordinate a wide range of activities. Outside the tech sector, these concepts are becoming increasingly central to modern management.

Even in a more standard office environment, the challenges of prioritizing and maintaining efficiency have multiplied. The stereotypical modern open-plan office with its endless meetings and distractions can make the idea of single-minded, creative problem solving seem impossible, as Jason Fried notes in his TED Talk "Why work doesn't happen at work."

It would be difficult to explore the evolution of management without also considering the evolution of work itself. How much work do we actually want to do? And how much are we able to do, before it starts to adversely affect our lives and the organizations we work for?

Striking the right balance between our professional and personal lives is becoming easier and more difficult. For example, our ability to connect to the office 24/7 provides flexibility, but it also means managers and their teams may be tempted—or expected—to put in more hours than ever before. TED speaker Nigel Marsh suggests that workers need to set and enforce their own, individual boundaries, but he doesn't let their employers off the hook: managerial (and organizational) duty of care must come into play. This is a huge societal issue, one that's measured by national governments and critical to our individual health and happiness. But it's not solely an altruistic appeal—for organizations with an eye on productivity, employee engagement and retention, it's simply smart business.

Facebook COO and TED speaker Sheryl Sandberg is particularly interested in the challenges that many women face as they advance in their professions and become wives and mothers. Although many fathers undoubtedly feel these pressures as well, Sandberg notes that by and large it's women who are dropping out of the workforce, and this means that women are all too often conspicuously absent from the top levels of governments, corporations and other organizations. Sandberg asks managers to consider what messages they're sending to the young women in their organizations, and to create ways for all people to engage fully at work so that we benefit from their diverse and valuable perspectives.

Sandberg is candid about her own struggles with work-life balance, and her example is also interesting because it touches on so many of the other issues that we've raised in this introductory essay. Facebook is a company of 7,000 employees working across 15 countries, constantly striving to meet the needs of its more than one billion users and figuring out how to harness the power of that global network. It must continuously innovate to maintain its leadership position as social media proliferate at an amazing rate. Executives like Sandberg must nurture the talent and creative thinking of team members who fuel that innovation—or risk losing them to others who may offer more appealing opportunities.

Get started

Let's begin Leading Wisely with TED speaker Itay Talgam, who uses a musical metaphor to illuminate the evolution of management and describe different leadership styles in "Lead like the great conductors".