Perry Hewitt falls right into her own trap

Perry Hewitt, the Chief Digital Officer at Harvard, recently produced a listicle for HBR, Five Mistakes to Avoid When Managing Digital Teams, and in the article she manages to fall smack dab into one of the mistakes she’s warning us not to make.

The last mistake in her list:

Mistake #5: Underestimating the speed of change. In 2003, blogging was still new in the mainstream, and mistrusted by corporations wedded to large CMS installs. In 2005, it was understood that video would never be a dominant form for readers. In 2007, mobile was mostly a development afterthought. In 2012, people insisted ephemeral content was a fringe use case, before Snapchat’s ascendancy among both preteens and Wall Street bankers. Managers must develop digital teams strong not only at rinse and repeat, but with adaptable skillsets and mindsets. Set the stage for expansive thinking about what’s possible through tactics as varied as shared bookmarking sites, lunch and learns, and guest speakers from different industries. Digital is full of examples of the unthinkable becoming the inevitable — and a default-open approach to new ideas helps your team adapt for these shifts.

Just to pull out the salient point, she says “Digital is full of examples of the unthinkable becoming the inevitable — and a default-open approach to new ideas helps your team adapt for these shifts.”

And in the previous list item, she says this:

Mistake #4: Prizing communications control over collaboration. When many managers entered the workforce, the company dictated the terms of communication. Paper memoranda were the top-down coin of the realm, and feedback upward was limited to select channels like town hall meetings. Woe to those managers who think that world still exists. While hierarchies of all kinds are alive and well — and will be with us always — work-related communications flows have changed dramatically. Ask your digital team the best way to communicate. Successful teams will likely use a flavor of collaboration software, whether that’s an explicit project tool like Apollo or a Google doc structure. Periodically, re-evaluate this decision. Has information sharing moved to instant messaging? To Twitter? Let your team vote with their feet, apart from security essentials. You have a better shot of retaining team knowledge if you’re optimized for the real ways information travels, and aren’t waiting for updates to the company intranet.

So, “While hierarchies of all kinds are alive and well — and will always be with us — work-related communications flows have changed dramatically.” I agree with her idea that managers should let people vote with their feet on what tools to use (and a lot of people aren’t waiting to be told to do so). But what about the possibility that hierarchies are not necessarily going to be with us always? Perhaps she is falling into the trap of underestimating the speed of change in the work revolution.

That may be unthinkable to a Chief Digital Officer who is used to working through a hierarchy, and whose leadership is based on power instead of trust and regard.

She’s so wedded to the cultural foundations of hierarchy that she probably never even considered that hierarchy is not a law of the universe but a social convention, like slavery or the divine right of kings, once central to civilization but no longer. And I bet she won’t invite me — or others — to be a guest speaker to discuss the inevitability of hierarchy’s fall, and the rise of the network.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Managing Director Gigaom Research

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