Management by Spontaneity

Organizational gospels come and go, but this one promises to be your panacea (or so its authors insist) by RICHARD M. OLSON AND M. DONALD THOMAS

Every manager is faced with a crucial decision: which management paradigm to use? Several well-known choices are available, but our observations of organizations indicate that each model can be disastrous when overzealously applied.

We have all dealt with consultants willing to change our troubled organizations by providing the latest theoretical solution to our problems. Unfortunately, many consultants do not feel responsible for implementing their theories. They usually aren’t on hand for the important implementation steps.

Management philosophies come and go. Each new system promises to be the ultimate panacea above all other solutions. Thus in the last 25 years we have been subjected to these management gospels:


  • by objectives,



  • by exception,



  • by coaching,



  • by kick in the ass,



  • by results,



  • by total quality management,



  • by walking around,



  • by guess,



  • by statistics and



  • by empowerment.


    The sooner these obsolete concepts are placed on the shelf, the better it will be for both the private and public sectors. This is in no way a criticism of the old management systems. They served us well. The current need, however, is for a new management style.

    All these efforts should be replaced immediately by the new kid on the block: management by spontaneity.

    Simple Tenets
    Management by spontaneity should be welcomed with celebrations and high expectations. It should be introduced into schools, factories, sweatshops, computer networks and every agency wishing to become effective. Without it, no corporation, unit of government or planet will survive the pains of the 21st century.

    The gospel according to Saint Spontaneity is the panacea above all other panaceas. Those who miss the boat on management by spontaneity will be doomed to eternal ineffectiveness and deprecation.

    The tenets of MBS are simple. We call them "The Eight Pillars of Success in Management:"

    No 1: Avoid job descriptions like the plague. The same goes for job titles, names on doors and organizational charts.

    No. 2: Never, absolutely never, conduct a needs assessment nor establish a three-year plan, a five-year plan or a 10-year plan.

    No. 3: Forget group training–deal only with individuals.

    No. 4: Do not ever try to solve a problem. Think about, articulate the need for and establish processes for problem solving. Emphasize process and forget problem solutions.

    No. 5: Don't ever do anything that someone else should do or anything that someone else can do better.

    No. 6: Change your mind as often as needed to do the right things. Lose face as often as needed and enjoy doing so.

    No. 7: Give a person who complains that he or she is "working too hard" additional responsibilities.

    No. 8: Ensure no one has a supervisor. Each person should report to himself or herself. Everyone operates on the principle of distribution ready.

    Unfamiliar Tactics
    There you have it--the eight pillars of success for effective management in the 21st century. As you can see, management by spontaneity is not for everyone. MBS is different. It is a set of concepts that requires knowledge of psychology, the skills of a lawyer and the wisdom of a philosopher. Further, to manage successfully by MBS one needs to have the intellect of a Thomas Jefferson.

    Management by spontaneity is extremely difficult to learn and even more difficult to practice. It flies in the face of traditional management theories and may create insecurity, especially in schools of business. MBS requires effort, hard work and significant changes in behavior--items that are foreign to most management gurus. Those who have invested most of their lives with obsolete management will be most resistant to MBS--a natural human reaction.

    Why does MBS work so well? Why will it enable us to leap frog the Japanese and Germans and survive in the next century? To understand MBS requires a new paradigm--a transformation into the future.

    Job Descriptions
    Job descriptions have been an important part of all previous management systems. The idea was to nail down what an individual must do, what was expected, what could be controlled. It established predictability in what individuals do year after year.

    The problem is that once job descriptions are completed, individuals continue to do what is no longer needed. Performance is allied to the job description rather than what needs to be done. Furthermore, job descriptions limit what individuals wish to do or what must be done, regardless of the job descriptions. It is much like telling a football player the sequence of plays that must be run, regardless of the outcome of each play. It simply does not make sense. The same is true with job titles, names on office doors and any designation that limits our individual responsibilities.

    Job descriptions do not allow for creativity, for sharing with other for exceptional performance, for adjusting to new conditions and for exercising spontaneous action. They lock individuals into fixed patterns of work and soon create boredom. Job titles do much the same thing. They limit what people are expected to do. More destructively, they limit the possibility of personal growth and development.

    In management by spontaneity, people are not given job descriptions or job titles. Knowing who does what becomes a total mess. But the system works well as everyone becomes responsible for whatever needs to be done. The motivation to make the system work is intensified because everyone has an equal chance to solve whatever needs to be solved. The chaos of order in other management systems is replaced by the order of chaos in MBS.

    Needs Assessments
    MBS recognizes the futility of conducting needs assessments. Even more important, it avoids needs assessments as one would avoid entering a rat-infested, decaying building.

    Needs assessments tend to give legitimacy to problems that exist for the least able people in an organization. They also provide a list of potential jobs for educational consultants, none of which is particularly important.

    Needs assessments always come up with communications as a problem. Work requirements are excessive. Needs assessments establish stress and burnout as common occurrences. Those who do not have these "problems" immediately develop them. After all, needs assessments must be validated.

    The organization then begins to work on communications--announcements, reports, retreats, conferences, developing listening skills, articulating a communications problem. Specific interaction problems are ignored, while universal problems are covered in the consultant's "stock workshop material." The longer it takes, the more confused the communications become and the more money the consultant makes.

    Next, the consultant suggests that workload be examined. Equity must be established and everyone must work at the level of the least able. Those who work beyond the standards are to be given additional rewards--counseling, long periods of rest and gentle reminders that if they don't watch out the goblins of workaholism will get them. They soon leave for more challenging assignments.

    Finally, the stress and burnout issues are resolved. The organization is purged of demands and high expectations. Everyone is supposed to feel better, but none does. Those who claim burnout and those who are sane immediately become insane.

    MBS claims that all problems are individual problems. Communications is the responsibility of whoever wants to be informed. Work requirements appear to be what the individuals wish them to be. Burnout and stress are self-imposed conditions to justify inability to perform well or to recognize what needs to be done. Individuals who have such problems will have them. Those who don't want them won't have them. They manage by spontaneity.

    Individual Training
    Problems that are caused by individuals not doing their jobs cannot be solved by group training. For these problems, group training is a myth. It is a myth. It is a myth in the same way that sensitivity training is a myth. Both provide opportunity to commit irresponsible behavior under the guise of peer influence. It is also a waste of time for those who politely train, even when they don't need the training.

    Group training has created more organizational problems than Freud. It has even created some problems that Freud did not anticipate. Training without implementation often creates problems. It can be the problem instead of the solution.

    What can we do about group training? We can just forget it. We realize that it will be difficult to do. Most of us have learned techniques of group training, have been indoctrinated with the values of group work and have participated in group education throughout most of our lives. Giving away group training places us in the position of the old Australian who bought a new boomerang and drove himself crazy trying to throw away the old one.

    Individual training programs are much more effective. They are similar to a happy marriage: The rocks in one partner's head fit the holes in the other partner's head. The training program aims to satisfy the specific need of an individual person, not the ghostly needs of the group.

    MBS does not recognize group training needs. It concentrates on the needs of the individuals who have names and can become responsible for the aim of a training program. It is personalized education.

    Problem-Solving Processes
    In business, problems occur again and again. The funny-farm part of it is that the problems are the same year after year. Once the problems are solved, they don't stay solved. They repeat themselves, just like holidays.

    MBS recognizes that problems are the perennial flowers of the workplace and develops processes for dealing with them. Individual solutions are not as important as a method for processing problems. What is needed is a way to put the problem to bed in a process that allows it to be normalized. Since it can't stay solved, it can become a normal activity, routinely handled each year.

    The first step is to anticipate what can happen. And as our good friend Murphy said, "If you think it can happen, it will happen." Next, establish a process for each Murphy problem. For that matter, establish a process for each Adam to Zebe problem you believe can happen. Then go out and play some golf and let the process do your walking. It works well with the Yellow Pages and will work well in your organization.

    Under this principle of MBS, leaders have security that whatever happens will be given attention by the entire organization, not an individual problem solver. The process will examine, validate, review, adjudicate and do whatever needs to be done with problems. Soon even the most difficult problems will appear routine.

    Who Does It Best
    The activity trap is a common disease among leaders. It is the same category as foot-in-mouth disease. Both are found most often in organizations run under management by objectives. These traps result from frequent exposure to program evaluation and review techniques, or PERTing, and excessive writing of performance objectives. Cramps in the fingers and the neurons of the left hemisphere are usual symptoms. The medicine most often suggested is complete bed rest.

    Most of us do more than we should and do much that others who can do it better should do. Even more important is the ability to match the complexity of the task to the level of ability required to do the task. Each person should be responsible for processing the problems related to his or her abilities. Not all so-called "difficult" decisions must land on the leader's desk. The buck stops with the person who has the most talent to deal with a particular problem.

    Every organization should employ bright people who energetically attack a variety of situations and enjoy doing it. It's the only way for the organization to flourish and sustain itself. And it's the only way for the chief executive officer to have time to think of crazy things for others to do.

    That thinking is best done under principles of MBS: looking out the window and contemplating the stars--if they can see beyond the fog.

    Mental Adjustment
    Leaders have been trained to "tough it out" once a decision has been made. However, fairness frequently requires one to change his or her mind. Often what appears to be snow ends up being rain. What appears to be blue and yellow is really green and orange. (MBS tries to avoid the black-and-white, either/or examples.)

    Losing face by changing one's mind to do the right thing is a satisfying experience. Eating crow is enjoyable if it lessens the fatty tissues around the hypothalamus. Further, the ability to correct an error or reduce the pains of injustice is good for most organizations. It contributes to the feeling that life is important and that people count. What most people are counting these days is money.

    Work Less, Produce More
    A colleague came to us several years ago and complained about his workload. Before he left, we had assigned him three additional responsibilities and said, "You should work less and produce more." Little did we realize that we had discovered the seventh of the eight pillars of success.

    Today our friend is a master at MBS. He works less, accomplishes more and presents workshops on "How to Handle Stress." His side income nearly matches the salary paid to him by the organization for which he works. He is enjoying life, has satisfaction at home and is on his way to becoming an elder statesman.

    Those who gripe about the workload usually have time to waste. They need additional assignments to keep them interested and challenged. Why would one complain about workload if he or she were pressed to finish something? Either too much time is available or strokes are needed. Provide strokes and fill in the time with work. It's like magic. It works, but you really don't know why.

    The idea that people need supervision is certainly obsolete, unless one assumes most people are idiots. Supervision is a contradiction; it is neither super to others nor does it create a vision. It usually stifles the one who is supervised. If individuals need supervision to do their job, they should not have been employed in the first place. Further, those who supervise are usually those who performed poorly in the jobs of those who they now are supposed to supervise; a complete waste of time, money and cerebral activity.

    Everyone should operate on the principle of distribution ready. Each person is responsible for quality work to be completed without it being approved by another person. Whatever product is to be produced, responsibility to be carried out or service to be provided, it should not require inspection by another person. It should be quality work in and of itself and be the responsibility of the individual who produces the product or provides the service. The means and the ends are one and the same person.

    Ready for Use
    We hope this review has heightened your awareness of some problems common to several management theories. We all must make sense of our organizations through the use of management theories, but we must be selective about implementing such advice.

    Here you have them--The Eight Pillars of Success, the basis for management by spontaneity. They are the principles around which management by spontaneity is built. Someday they will go down in history like the seven deadly sins, the seven wonders of the world or the seven signs of cancer. To predict the contribution that MBS will make to public education in America is difficult. I'm sure, however, that MBS will outperform all other management systems combined.

    If you do try MBS, let us know how it works. We have not tried it ourselves. Our current job descriptions limit us to MBO and TQM.

    Richard Olson is an instructor in applied professions at the University of South Carolina, Carolina Coliseum 1002, Columbia, SC 29808. E-mail: rolson@sc.edu. Donald Thomas, a retired superintendent, is senior partner of the School Management Study Group in Salt Lake City, Utah. This article updates an earlier version that Thomas wrote for the NASSP Bulletin in October 1984