The S.O.L.A.R. Revolution is here!

by Lanny Goodman on July 9, 2009

You heard it here first…the S.O.L.A.R. revolution is upon us.

No, I’m not talking about arrays of silicon on your roof or giant propellers whirring in your backyard.  I’m talking about the death of one of the most cherished and persistent of the traditional management artifacts: the job description.

If ever there was an icon of the machine model of management, surely the job description is it.  What clearer evidence of the “cog-in-the-machine” mindset that gave us “modern scientific management” one hundred years ago could there be?  Here are your specifications as a cog in the machine: 243 teeth, spin clockwise at 49.7 rpm and engage with the following other cogs…Have a nice day.

And business leaders scratch their heads wondering why their employees hate coming to work.

It’s not like there is any mystery about this.  Since the first organization studies were done in the 1930’s it’s been clear that traditional management practice is profoundly enervating and diminishing to the human spirit.  Unfortunately, because talent was plentiful and cheap and the productivity gains at the time were so great, the human cost of what has become traditional management practice was deemed acceptable.

But today, even in this economic climate, top talent is scarce and expensive and unlike in the ’30s, employees have options.

So what is the SOLAR revolution?  To answer this question, we need to go back to the 1970s when a man named John Carver began doing ground-breaking work with non-profit Boards of Directors.  If you know anything about non-profit Boards, you know that the members are there primarily because they are either in a position to donate significant money or have the ability to get others to donate significant money.  As a result, non-profit Boards are notoriously contentious and ineffective and providing governance for their organizations.  This is true by virtue of the Board being either unable to reach consensus on strategic direction and execution and/or by being meddlesome and intrusive into the operational workings of the organization.

What Carver did was first, work with the Board to clarify their vision for the organization and its values.  Then he had them define in that context, what it was not OK for the officers of the organization to do.  This would include broad strategic issues such as “you will not instigate and service offerings outside of our core service without Board approval”.  Also financial limitations such as what are the financial limits beyond which officers could not obligate the company without Board approval.  More detailed limits were also typical such as policies having to do with sexual harassment and other kinds of legal and values related limitations.

Beyond those limitations, however, the Board’s message to the officers is “Go forth and multiply.”

In a self-managing context, the logic of this approach is completely sound.  It gives the Board the controls that are legitimate for their role in the corporate structure and at the same time it gives the officers room to run and space in which to exercise the judgment they are being paid for to grow and strengthen the organization.

Policy Governance has been widely adopted by non-profit Boards in a number of segments of the non-profit world and has made Boards more effective, made being a Board member more fun and productive, and made running a non-profit much more pleasant and less stressful for management.

If you have followed my blog at all, you know that I am a staunch advocate of designing and building organizations which intrinsically leverage the full value that employees are capable of bringing to the party.  Accomplishing this requires a thorough understanding of the pervasive mechanistic assumptions on which the whole edifice of traditional management practice was built.  It requires the conceptual flexibility to grasp how an organizational model that resembles biology more than the machine is much more in alignment with how the universe appears to actually work and much more in alignment with the demographics and psychographics of today’s workforce.

So, in the spirit of Policy Governance, the SOLAR is an acronym which stands for Statement Of Limitations And Responsibilities.  Its structure is:

1) Very broadly defined, this is what we want you to do

2) Very specifically, here are the things you cannot do because you:

a) Have not been trained and certified or

b) Have not yet demonstrated your competence in this area.

Let’s look at some examples.


1) Work on the production line assembling kitted parts through various welding processes, following all safety procedures, maintaining paperwork for each kit and helping others out where time allows to maximize work throughput, company profitability, and customer satisfaction.

2) You cannot obligate the company for more than $100 without Team Leader approval.  You cannot weld stainless steel.  You cannot do electrical assembly.  You cannot operate the shear or brake.  These restrictions can and will be lifted as you acquire the necessary certifications.  You cannot violate any documented company ethics or policies.

Marketing Director

1) Develop and execute the strategic marketing plan in conjunction with the business unit leaders, serve on the Leadership Team, oversee the marketing function to insure satisfaction of your internal customers’ needs for trade show support, collateral development and any other marketing support.  Be an independent set of eyes and ears in the marketplace to insure that customers are delighted and remain loyal and that the company’s profit objectives are met.

2) You cannot obligate the company for any amount in excess of the quarterly budget approved for your internal service unit.  You cannot run a strategic business unit.  You cannot interact with a strategic business unit’s customers unless that contact was initiated by the customer or the contact is done with the support and approval of the strategic business unit leader.  You cannot violate any documented company ethics or policies.

Clearly, for this kind of autonomy to work, employees require much more knowledge and information than they are traditionally given.  Many companies have struggled to identify the return on investment for comprehensive training programs.  In my view there is only one justification for this kind of investment: we can produce more profitable products and services (and therefore revenue) with the same or even less management infrastructure.  Therefore the cost of that management infrastructure is reduced as a percentage of sales and that reduction in cost flows straight to the bottom line.  This profitability gives us the justification for the significant investment in education, training and orientation necessary to give employees the ability to function relatively independently and reliably exercise good judgment.

Contrast this to the traditional management world.  1) Check your brain at the door and do just what we tell you to do.  2) Don’t worry about or ask about what’s going on the the cubicle next to yours.  Just do your work.  Worrying about the person next to you is my job as your manager.  Don’t step on my turf.

In that context, the only training that is really necessary is the training to do the specific job the employee has been hired to do.

An interesting way to look at organizational heath is to compare it to biological health.  In the human body, every cell is aware of the state of every other cell. The body is flooded with communication (hormones, enzymes, neurotransmitters and others) which keep the whole system apprised of its state of being.  If you cut your finger or catch a cold, the entire organism rallies to its defense.

Compare this model of health to what goes on in your organization.  Does your organization look healthy from that point of view or if your organization was a body would you be calling 911?

The key fact is that the changes in the competitiveness of the world requires that we root out and dismantle the artifacts of traditional management practice and splice new DNA around which the organization creates itself.  There was nothing intrinsically wrong with “modern scientific management”.  It was a brilliant conception, gave rise to the huge productivity gains that made the middle class in this country possible and unquestionably made it possible for the US to win World War II.  But that was then and this is now.  The economy is now service driven, knowledge driven and information driven.  Intellectual capital drives the markets far more than financial capital.  Technology has made things routine that fifty years ago would have sounded like science fiction or the ravings of a mad person.  Reinventing leadership, management and organization isn’t easy because it means that much of our experience is now more of a liability than an asset.  But that doesn’t make the need any less pressing.

The survivors of this recession will be lean, nimble and ready to rock.  Good times will come again, but they will be different than what we have experienced in the past and much more demanding.  We have to reinvent ourselves if we expect to be up to the challenge.  So…

The job description is dead.  Long live the S.O.L.A.R.!

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