Managerial Tools - "Don't Check Your Brain at the Door" | Technological Leadership Institute

Posted on
August 10, 2017
stock photo of business people's silhouettes in a conference room

Several years ago, I had the good fortune of leading the Six Sigma initiative for 3M. I reported to James “Jim” McNerney, chairman of the board and CEO, before he moved on to the same position at Boeing. He was a strong believer in process improvement, using a common approach and language across the global enterprise. Mr. McNerney was a strong champion for Six Sigma and saw great value in the many uses in a DMAIC project. He even led his own project.

And yet the words I most remember from him were, “Don’t check your brain at the door.”

It was always clear what he meant: While managerial tools can be insightful, mindless obedience is a road to ruin.

In Six Sigma, the tools ranged from a C&E matrix and process mapping to a RACI Matrix and Force Field Analysis. At the Technological Leadership Institute, we frequently call on “Real/Win/Worth”1, SWOT, Porter’s Five Forces2, the Business Model Canvas3 and several others. Under the right circumstances, these types of tools have several merits:

  • Systematic, rigorous articulation. The more one person is sure they know the answer to something, I find the more likely it is they are missing something. A tool like Porter’s Five Forces, especially when completed in a group setting, can challenge conventional wisdom and require uncomfortable questions be addressed. Better sooner than later.

  • Unexpected insights. Almost every well-executed Six Sigma project discovers something unexpected while doing a Cause-and-Effect Matrix. Spending time on a tool like the Business Model Canvas can reveal opportunities and dependencies that were previously unknown.

  • Communication tools. A common outcome of developing a Business Model Canvas is having a device to communicate to others what the business is about and what is needed for success. A RACI (Responsible/Accountable/Consultant/Informed) Matrix gives a team much-needed clarity. Many management tools are designed to help tell the story.

And yet, slavish adherence to tools is the way people “leave their brain at the door.” Even a mosaic created with the most robust tools has a potential for gaps. Shortcomings fall into several categories:

  • Static view of a dynamic environment. Innovation requires foresight – a point-of-view on the future. Yet, with the exception of Scenario Mapping and Porter’s Five Forces, most tools are static. A SWOT (Strength/Weakness/Opportunity/Threat) analysis can tell you something about today, but what about five years from now? It is not intended for that. The same is true for a Business Model Canvas, and many other tools. Indeed, Six Sigma tools all look backwards in time.

  • Sloppy execution. I’ve seen many people claim their idea passes George Day’s “Real/Win/Worth” test, based on a few PowerPoint bullets under each word, without doing the rigorous thinking and exploration that tool demands.

  • “Tool happy.” If three tools are useful, then 13 must be better, right? Of course not! Just because you saw a tool in a book doesn’t mean it applies to your situation. Not every management tool will add insight to your situation. And stacking them up in a thick presentation, just to prove you did them, impresses nobody.

Many of these tools get incorporated into innovation processes, which themselves become toolsets for entrepreneurship and growth. Ranging from five to 24 steps, a library could be filled with the books promising adherence to their process is the “magic elixir” to business success. Some of these books have important insights and useful approaches.

Yet innovation is always a dynamic, iterative process. Never have I seen a successful innovation that didn’t have iteration, false-starts and failures along the way. That doesn’t mean a disciplined approach is fruitless – it actually makes it even more important, as you search for success in a dynamic world. And it also makes it important your critical thinking skills be engaged at every step.

Bill Aulet, successful serial entrepreneur and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship4, captures well what it takes: “The spirit of a pirate, and the execution skills of a Navy Seal.” Making that combination work takes full brain engagement every day. It’s why robots won’t be starting new businesses anytime soon.

1) George S. Day, “Is it real? Can we win? Is it worth doing?--Managing risk and reward in an innovation portfolio.” Harvard Business Review, December 2007.
2) Michael E. Porter, Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors, Free Press, 1998.
3) A. Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, Business Model Generation, Wiley, 2010.
4) Bill Aulet, Disciplined Entrepreneurship, Wiley, 2013.

About the Author

Photo of Steven Webster

Steven Webster

  • Honeywell/Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management
  • Senior Fellow

Edson W. Spencer Chair in Technology Management

Steven Webster brings 31 years of experience with 3M to TLI’s graduate programs. Teaching primarily innovation classes and leading the Management of Technology minor program, Webster has expertise in new product development and commercialization; technology foresight, planning, and development; innovative organization and design and effectiveness; leadership development; global business; Six Sigma, display technology; consumer electronics, and communications technology.

Stay Informed

Subscribe to receive the latest TLI articles, news and events

Stay Informed

Stay Connected