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Mary Parker Follett: Management Visionary

‘Ahead of her time’ seems to be the most appropriate epiphet to apply to Mary Parker Follett. And many have done so: Peter Drucker described her as a ‘prophet of management’, while Warren Bennis has said:

‘Just about everything written today about
leadership and organizations comes from
Mary Parker Follett’s lectures and writings.’

Mary Parker Follett

 

Brief Biography

Mary Parker Follett was born in 1868, into a wealthy Quaker family in Boston. She was an exceptional scholar and a polymath, attending university at Harvard (the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women – later Radcliffe College), during which time she also spent a year at Newnham College, at Cambridge University (in England). Although denied a PhD by Harvard, she studied widely in law, economics, politics, philosophy, and history. While at Cambridge University she prepared and delivered a paper that was to become, in 1918, her first book: ‘The New State’. It was about social evolution and group-based democratic government. It was reviewed by former US president, Theodore Roosevelt and remains in print today.

After studying, Follett spent the next thirty or so years (from 1890 to 1924) focusing on voluntary social work in Boston. She innovated, being the first person in the US to use a school as an out-of-hours community centre; a model that was widely reproduced across the country.

However, what interests us most at the Management Pocketblog is her work from 1924, when she turned her focus to industry. She wrote that it is ‘the most important field of human activity’ and that:

‘management is the most fundamental element in industry’

She became an early management consultant and was much in demand by industry leaders and academic institutions. She spent her time advising and lecturing, up until her death, at a relatively young age, in  December 1933.

Sadly, her work is not widely known of in the western world, despite notable figures like Drucker, Bennis and Sir Peter Parker praising her to the rafters. This is despite the fact that she anticipated a wide range of issues and thinking that is still today presented as modern and aspirational for our large organisations.

Follett’s Visionary Thinking

Let’s count the ways that Follett was ahead of her time in the field of management. I get to eight.

1. Humanistic Approach to Organisations

Growing up in the time of FW Taylor, and ahead of the work of Elton Mayo, Follett rejected the functional approach to industry in favour of her emphasis on what we now call humanistic principle. She was a progressive, rational humanist in the management field as well as in the political and social arenas, and puts me very much in mind of George Eastman, whom I also described as a visionary. She very much anticipated the work of Douglas McGregor.

2. Empowerment

Follett rejected the idea that managers and staff have fundamentally different roles and capabilities. Instead, she saw that an organisation’s success would come from recognising the part that each has to play in delivering its services or creating its products. She advocated giving power to where it matters.

3. Joined up Business (… and hence, Re-engineering and Lean?)

This created a need for a joined up organisation, where activities, departments, functions and people are properly co-ordinated – both across the organisation and from the bottom to the top (and vice versa). She referred to the relationships between staff and managers and among functions as ‘reciprocal relating’. A leader’s role is therefore to see the whole organisation and the ‘relation between all the different factors in a situation’. Is it too much of a stretch to see this as anticipating the mission of re-engineering and lean management to close gaps in process flow? I don’t think so.

4. Group Dynamics and Team Working – Participative Leadership

The equal balance of power between management and employees leads to the need for team co-operation and that, she suggested, develops a true sense of responsibility in workers. To me, it also demands a model of leadership that Robert Greenleaf was to call ‘Servant Leadership’. Follett did not herself go as far, but identified ‘Participative Leadership’ as the style that involves a whole team in creating products and delivering services.

5. Personal Responsibility

Tying together empowerment, co-ordination and group working is the sense of responsibility they inculcate in workers. Follett again anticipated McGregor’s Theory Y, by arguing that it is this which most develops people.

6.Management Training

If we are to delegate greater responsibility to our people, we must do so well. Follett was an early advocate of management training, believing when many did not that the leadership aspects can be taught.

7. Transformational Leadership

In a paper called ‘The social construction of leadership: From theory to praxis’, Edith Rusch notes the unacknowledged similarities between James McGregor Burns’ articulation of ‘Transformational Leadership’ and Follett’s writings. She presents a compelling argument that Follett not only anticipated the ideas of transformational leadership, but that she was the first to put them forward and even used the term.

8. Win-Win Negotiation and Conflict Management

One particular interest of Follett’s was conflict. She suggested three approaches of domination, compromise and integration, that  Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann would later refer to as competing, compromising, and collaborating. Her thinking on the benefits and mechanisms of creating integrated ‘win-win’ resolutions is rich and sophisticated. In her suggestion that we uncover the real conflict and get to each party’s deeper aims, and then seek to satisfy those, she anticipated a lot of the thinking in best-selling negotiation book, ‘Getting to Yes’.

My one Favourite concept…

from all of Follett’s writing is this: the idea of ‘circular response’. This is that our behaviour helps to create the situation to which we respond. It is the idea of a feedback loop of self reinforcing interpretations and behaviour. I don’t doubt that the essence of this very modern sounding idea goes back to the ancients and classical writings of many cultures. But her articulation of it (and of the compelling phrase ‘circular response’) is so clear, that it has got me thinking.

Thank you…

to Mary Parker Follett. Before I started researching this blog, I knew nothing of her (unlike almost all other management thinker subjects). I had hoped that, being less known, there would be little to read and writing this would be quick. Far from it. But I have gained a lot from learning about Follett, and I hope you will too.

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George Eastman: Visionary Philanthropist

George Eastman is mainly remembered as the father of Kodak, seller of cheap cameras and the film-stock you use for your holiday snaps. Yet I am aware that many adults reading this will only be dimly aware of the days when you had to get your photos developed. The ability to do that, however, was a huge step forward. Who knows what Eastman would have made of the iPhone and Instagram.

George Eastman

Short Biography

George Eastman was born in upstate New York in 1854 and his father died when he was still at school. This meant leaving at 14, to get a job at an insurance company, but at the same time he studied accounting at home, with the hope of getting a better paid job; which he did.

In 1878, while working at the Rochester Savings Bank, he was introduced to photography, buying a load of then state-of-the-art equipment and learning how to use it. The big problem he saw was the need to develop images quickly, while the emulsion on the photographic plate was wet. His genius was to take a suggestion of using a dry, gelatine emulsion and find a way to make it work. In 880, he patented this innovation and one other: a machine to mass produce dry plates.

Eastman gave up his job at the bank and, with a new partner, George Strong, he founded The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company in 1884. Eight years later, this was to be renamed The Eastman Kodak Company. In the time until his death, in 1932, Eastman proved himself a pioneer in six areas of management (at least), as well as a massive donor to academic, cultural and medical institutions across the US and in Europe.

In the final years of his life, Eastman suffered agonising pain from a spinal disorder that left him inactive and increasingly depressed. In March 1932, he committed suicide with a single gunshot through his heart. He left a short message: ‘My work is done – Why wait? GE.’

Six Pioneering Principles

1. Democratising Technology

When he took up photography, it was an expensive and complex niche pastime, that required much equipment and many skills. Eastman saw the potential to make it easier and less expensive. He took a new technology and, throughout its life, was actively involved in its maturation. Eastman wanted to ‘make the camera as convenient as the pencil’.

2. Crisis Management

Early on, some of the dry plates Eastman distributed were faulty. Without skipping a beat, he recalled everything and replaced them, using up all of his new business’s financial reserves. He recognised the value of reputation above all else:

‘Making good on those plates took our last dollar. But what we had left was more important – reputation’

3. Humanistic Management

At around the time when Frederick Winslow Taylor wanted to apply the principles of science to management, to create scientific management, Eastman took a different tack. It was a tack that would not become mainstream until Elton Mayo effectively knocked Scientific Management over and replaced it, in the 1930s, with Humanistic Management. In 1899, he started distributing a ‘wage dividend’ to all his workers, rewarding them all for their efforts in proportion to the dividend paid on the company’s shares. In 1919, he went further, handing a third of the company’s assets to his employees, and instituting life insurance, a disability benefit scheme, and a retirement plan.

4. Brand Recognition

The name Kodak is a made-up work – not a contraction, a translation or an acronym. It just sounded good to Eastman, who thought the K sound was strong (many English language comedians will also say that the K sound sounds funny – but not as funny as Q). He also chose the distinctive yellow and red colours of the logo. And the cherry on the cake was an innovative slogan, ‘you push the button, we do the rest’ that promised a new level of simplicity.

5. ‘Trust us’ marketing

That slogan is the basis of a style of marketing that is now commonplace: you can trust us, we’ll take care of it.

  • ‘Don’t leave home without it’
  • ‘If only everything in life was as reliable as a…
  • ‘You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world’
  • ‘It does what it says on the tin’

You identify the brands.

6. Black-box Service Offering

No longer did people need to understand the equipment they were using. To take a photo, you needed a simple camera and a roll of film. Technologists would sort out the optics and the chemistry for you. We now live in a world where everyone from politicians to crazed loonies derides aspects of science, without stopping for a moment to wonder how a mobile phone can possibly make a voice and visual link to somebody thousands of miles away, access a billion articles, take still and moving photos, as well as add up your shopping basket, store your shopping list and ring an alarm when it is time to go.

 

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