Issue #15 from my Design + Culture email series, which looks critically at our most commonly-held beliefs. View the Archive

Grow :  undergo natural development by increasing in size and changing physically; progress to maturity.
Manage:  be in charge of (a company, establishment, or undertaking); administer; run // succeed in surviving or in attaining one's aims, especially against heavy odds; cope.

A patient is diagnosed with with Type 2 diabetes. The patient is scared and worried, unsure of what to do and what their options are. The doctor in this case provides clear medical and self care instructions and schedules a follow up appointment in a month's time.

The patient tries their best to keep up with the tracking and daily medication required, but because of their work schedule and diet they don't follow all of the doctor's instructions properly and start to feel worse. At their next visit the doctor has to "manage" the medical crisis situation, providing additional education and instruction, as well as medical attention.

With the best of intentions on both sides, the situation keeps getting worse, more and more emergency visits are needed, and more "managing" of the situation ensues. In the end, both patient and doctor feel this is not being resolved or getting better.

This story is not hypothetical; it was told to me by a medical professional.

Too often we "manage" by controlling and fixing a crisis that arises, then exhaling and waiting for the next one. This is unsustainable and this management style is a core reason why people leave jobs they would otherwise enjoy.

“People leave managers, not companies.”

“Workers reported that companies generally satisfy their needs for on-the-job development …[such as] significant increases in responsibility. But they’re not getting much in the way of formal development, such as training, mentoring, and coaching—things they also value highly.” - HBR

So what can you do?

“The more that people are rewarded for doing something, the more likely they are to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.” - Alfie Kohn

The approach I'll describe here isn't hard, but it does require you as a manager to be consistent, focused, and honest with the people you manage.

The first step is to understand where the person you are managing is right now. What is their skill level, how do they approach their work, what makes them happy and sad? This understanding can only begin from careful observation.

Once you understand where they are, you can help them figure out how they want to grow. Your careful observation should have given you some clues but asking directly and exploring future growth paths is necessary to get a full picture. 

Thus far this may sound familiar and straightforward. The next stage in a conventional growth path would be to set goals that need to be achieved to attain new skills. 

This is exactly what should not happen! 

Following the goals path leads to the “crisis management” approach. Once goals are set, the tenor of the conversation becomes about testing: did you achieve the goal, when are you going to achieve it, how long will it take, how well did you achieve your goal? The learning becomes not about new knowledge gained but rather about the ability to pass the test. This approach narrows thinking and makes the whole process of growing your career more stressful and less open. 

The alternative approach is to think about growth as progression.

Let's say a person's goal is to get better at communicating ideas. A traditional goals structure would say: set a goal to give a presentation at a conference of your peers.
The growth-based approach would say: spend time each week writing a blog post about the work you have done, make a series of diagrams to show your working process, make a series of short presentations about an idea or activity you really enjoy, make a series of short videos about the current project you're working on.

The growth approach is about exploring a wide range of ways to communicate ideas and to do lots of them in quick bursts so the person starts to build a skill, without worrying about failing, and makes it part of how they work.

The role of the manager changes from someone enforcing and setting the rules to someone checking in on, marking, and supporting progression.

The approach focuses on growing skills rather than on the ability to cram to pass one big test. You shift from the crisis management of “”will this person give a good presentation or not?” (and their coming to you two days before without a real plan) to instead, their practice of a series of activities that allow them to explore and learn from each activity and to build on skills learned and from mistakes made. 

To create innovative products and services, companies need to first invest in building a sustainable creative culture where people feel they are growing, rather than being tested. 

Don’t let things get to a crisis point; decisions made in this mode are almost always worse. Help people grow and you and your company will thrive. 


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