Harnessing Everyday Genius

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Can companies really increase profits and productivity while turning “dead-end jobs” into “get-ahead jobs?”  Legendary business guru Gary Hamel says “yes,” and he explains exactly how several leading companies are already doing it.

The OECD’s loss of so-called “good jobs” has inspired a slew of proposals, including mandatory labor representation on corporate boards, benefits for gig economy workers, tax breaks for investments in human capital, and a minimum guaranteed income.  While some of these ideas have merit, they don’t address the root of the problem: the widespread assumption that low-wage jobs are filled by minimally capable people.  That’s a prejudice that has denied many millions of employees the opportunity to enhance their skills and exercise their minds.

The view of employees as semi-programmable machines goes back to the early decades of the Industrial Revolution when most workers were poorly educated. It was reinforced by Frederick Taylor in 1911 when he published The Principles of Scientific Management, in which he described the typical laborer as “so stupid that the term ‘percentage’ has no meaning to him.”  The solution, said Taylor, was to strip judgment from frontline jobs: “It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that…faster work can be assured.”  And who was to do the enforcing? Professionally trained managers, of course.

Taylor’s model of industrial bureaucracy set up a caste system of thinkers and doers that persists to this day.  Although the total quality management and kaizen movements both emphasized employee empowerment, the basic bureaucratic approach still dominates.  A 2019 Gallup survey found that only one in five U.S. employees strongly agreed with the statement “My opinions seem to count at work” and fewer than one in 10 with the statement  “I take risks at my job that could lead to new products or solutions.”  In the 2015 American Working Conditions Survey, just 11 percent of frontline U.S. employees said they were consistently able to influence decisions important to their work.  Meanwhile, the...

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