Unfiltered: The Gary Hamel Interview

June 17, 2019 Aaron Kinne

5-minute read

Gary Hamel

What’s the real reason people show up to work every day? 

According to Gary Hamel, best-selling author and London Business School professor, “You have to believe you are doing something that increases the quantum of human happiness in the world, and that you have a purpose that goes beyond profit.”

That was just one of the provocative insights Professor Hamel offered in a wide-ranging Workhuman® Radio interview, recorded during Workhuman® Live 2019 in Nashville. Click the player above to listen to the full 23-minute episode.

Echoing many of the themes he explored in his keynote address, the iconoclastic business thinker noted that, “aspiration unleashes a huge amount of creative energy.” It frees people from their silos and lets them discover a higher, more positive organizational purpose. To illustrate his point, he drew on his own career as a business school professor, noting that he could define his role as simply turning out degrees or training people to get a job.

But what gives him personal inspiration and meaning in his work? “I think about how we improve the technology of human accomplishment. Because what we do as a species is largely dependent on our ability to bring people together. I have this responsibility to make life better for people who are at work.”

The way we work has stagnated

In a surprising view, Professor Hamel believes that for most people, work hasn’t changed significantly in the last 10-20 years. Sure, we have – as he puts it – “shiny new tools.” But when employees are asked if they believe they have more autonomy, more opportunities to impact the lives of customers, or that their creative skills are being utilized, most answer “no.” In fact, when describing the evolution of work, Professor Hamel feels, “we’re largely stalled.”

He contends that management needs to reinvent the way it thinks about employees – to go beyond simply asking them to do a job and then measuring how effectively they do that job. To him, companies are missing an important opportunity because they can’t – or won’t – measure “the value of the lost creativity, the lost initiative.’” Why not? In a bureaucratic structure, if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t have value.

Control versus freedom

According to Professor Hamel, management tends to see “control” and “freedom” as mutually exclusive – if one goes up, the other has to come down. And while acknowledging that control is important, he believes organizations can have a form of control that’s more effective and productive. In his view, “You can get [control] with more transparency with peers; you can get it when employees feel an enormous responsibility for a shared goal.” 

Returning to his own role as a professor, he notes that he reports not to the dean, but to two vital constituencies: his students who rate him at the end of every term and his peers who tell him if an article is worth publishing. “I have an enormous amount of accountability, but almost zero form of bureaucracy or formal control.”

Eliminating bureaucracy does not mean plunging an organization into chaos. Instead, it’s about fostering a workplace environment where employees feel empowered and liberated to tap into their creative selves. As he notes, “When we blanket people in rules, they go on autopilot. They don’t have to think anymore. They don’t have to use their creativity.”

Recognition as an antidote to bureaucracy

How can recognition help lessen the negative impact of bureaucracy? “I think one of the great flaws of all hierarchical organizations is that people compete for a scarce resource that’s called ‘promotion.’ And it’s a sum-zero game.” In Professor Hamel’s view, competition for promotions drives counter-productive behaviors such as knocking down rivals and dressing up results. His solution? “Change the organization where the currency of career success is no longer promotions, and no longer one person’s opinion of my work.” 

He envisions a time, “when every single person in an organization would have a peer-based leadership score that’s completely independent of where they sit in the hierarchy. Because I can tell you … the formal hierarchy is not a hierarchy of wisdom, foresight, or creativity. It’s a hierarchy of narrow administrative competence.” 

Professor Hamel believes that in the future, organizations will have “multiple hierarchies.” As he puts it, “The idea that you have one formal hierarchy and that your job is to satisfy one boss and polish their ego – that idea is absolutely toxic. It is out of date.”

The innovation buzz-kill

In closing, Professor Hamel observed that what makes us human is that we create. But when we come to work, the opportunity to be creative is all too often stifled. At the same time, his research shows that, “79% of CEOs around the world will tell you that innovation is critical for their company. They understand it’s the only insurance against irrelevance; it’s the only long-term guarantee of customer loyalty. They get it.”

Yet in his experience, he’s found that while many CEOs espouse the desire to promote innovation, few actually take the concrete steps – training, removing bureaucracy, accountability – that will actually promote a culture in which innovation can thrive. 

Bringing the wisdom of the crowd

In the end, he believes that organizations have to “bring the wisdom of the crowd” to foster true innovation. As he notes, “The role of a leader today is not to be that final arbitrator, not to be the decision-maker-in-chief, but to really be that social architect who thinks, ‘How do we build a great collaborative system that gets the best ideas out?’”

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About the Author

Aaron Kinne

Aaron Kinne is a senior writer at Workhuman.

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