Holistic – weasel word or word of wisdom?

Connecting The Plan With The Current Reality

I was reading an article recently about Adrian Newey, the Chief Technical Officer of Red Bull’s Formula 1 team and one of the primary reasons for Sebastian Vettel’s string of four consecutive world driver’s Championships.  The article began with the following sentence.  “Holistic is a weasel word beloved of management consultants and other such flim-flam merchants, but when it sallies from one man’s mouth (Adrian Newey), you know what he means.”

Indeed, whilst “holistic” might not be as popular a weasel word as “world’s best practice”, “engagement” or “emotional intelligence”, it does make an appearance in Don Watson’s “Dictionary of Weasel Words” where one of his definitions of “holistic” is “taking account of more than one part.  Not partial or fragmentary, thereby yielding superior conclusions.”

However what Newey means by holistic is the capacity to understand how every aspect of a Formula 1 car’s components interact with every other part so that the car’s overall performance is superior to that of its competitors.  After graduating in 1980 with a degree in aerodynamics from Southampton University in the UK, Newey worked his way up from years as a race engineer to senior designer at Williams, McLaren and now Red Bull.  During this period, the design offices at F1 teams have become dramatically larger with dozens of engineers and aerodynamicists working in semi-autonomous groups, each trying to optimise the performance of their particular speciality.  Newey is in a class of his own in his ability to both understand the detail and how each design component will impact on the car’s overall performance.  In contrast, with some of Newey’s competitors, “graduates arrive in design offices without hands-on experience and go straight to the coalface, joining those sub-groups working on individual sections of the car, chiselling away at abstract targets to yield a certain percentage improvement in downforce … and the result is a disjointed overall design that looks as if its constituent elements have been picked and assembled at random.”

But it’s not just the application of holistic thinking to the technical side of the job.  Certainly, like Newey, you need to understand and then orchestrate the integration of every technical function within an organisation so the performance of the whole is optimised.  But it’s one thing to plan; quite another to implement.  You don’t achieve anything if your plans, however brilliant, remain on the drawing board.  Thus, taking a holistic approach requires the manager to appreciate the linkage between managing the technical and managing the people who will bring the plan to reality.

Newey puts it this way:  “When I started at Red Bull, I treated the job as mainly a design based challenge.  But there were two main problems that had nothing directly to do with design.  The first was that this was a team of low morale because there had been a lot of hiring and firing of key personnel with different owners through the years.  The second was a strange type of arrogance – a refusal to acknowledge how mediocre their performance was.”

“It took quite a while for Christian (Horner – Team Manager at Red Bull) and I to create the cultural change that we needed to get away from the ‘we’re happy to finish seventh mentality’.  I wasn’t a believer in setting out that we’re going to win the championship next year.  But I did want to say: ‘This is how we’ll try to go about things.  Let’s see where it gets us – hopefully, further up the grid than we are now.'”

“These days there’s a huge energy through the place.  The factory and the race team are incredibly hard working …….  It’s very rewarding that many of the people who were there from the very early days of Red Bull are still there today.  They are performing at such a high level now.  They’ve been able to really re-invent themselves, and I admire them for that”.

So to summarise what it means to take a holistic approach to management, here are the key points:

■          Think and act holistically – make it your responsibility to achieve an understanding of the “technical” aspects of what everyone does who works for you.

■          If it’s an area that you are not familiar with, sit with the people who are and ask questions – spend time with accounts, your IT team, your customer service people.  Go out with your reps, spend a day in the labs, get behind the customer service desk.  Observe and analyse – but remember it’s your role to take the individual pieces of the jigsaw and connect them to form the big picture.

■          Managing holistically means managing the technical component of the job and managing people.

■          At the risk of using another weasel word, your job is to empower the people who work for you.

■          How to do that?

●          Work with them to set collective goals that are SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, a Result – not an activity and Time related.

●          Be visible and available – practice management by wandering around

●          Don’t micro-manage – your role is to set objectives and provide the support and resources for others to accomplish them

●          Encourage innovative thinking – “how could your job be made more effective – how can we collectively improve”?

●          Provide feedback on the big picture – people want to be “in” on things

●          Show appreciation for a job well done.  Everyone at Red Bull, from the cleaners to Adrian Newey received the same bonus of $10,000 for their part in winning the team’s fourth Constructor’s championship.

The sad reality is that our world does not encourage holistic management of the style that Newey epitomises.  Conversely, the rewards for those that do practice it have never been greater.

Graham Haines

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