Thursday, August 22, 2013

Control is not a four letter word

I read that Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder-president who bought the Washington Post, according to an anonymous colleague “makes an ordinary control freak look like a stoned out hippie.”  It sounds a lot like what they said about Steve Jobs. 

Despite their success, you can sense the irritation in the accusations.  So given their success, you have to wonder, is control a bad thing?  Seems to me you have to distinguish: is it control so you are in control for your own reasons, or is it control for the sake of the product or service being produced?

Type I Control Freak (CF1)

The usual “control freak” in a company – or in a family for that matter – is someone who likes to be in control for his or her personal reasons.  Sometimes it is a way to treat anxiety – if you are in control, someone else isn’t, and you won’t be hurt.  Or it could also be someone who is afraid of being fired.  For instance, if she hoards information and divides up tasks so that she is the only one who can operate the unit, who is thus indispensable, firing is made much more difficult.  This is CF1a.

Alternatively, forget weakness.  Some people hoard information to maximize their own prerogatives.  They take vacations when they want and let others work with the left-overs, and so on.  In short, they enhance their own power and use it for their own gain.

Type II Control Freak (CF2)

On the other hand, what about someone who is really smart, or really well-trained?  Or someone who will not make compromises with quality?  Or someone who will work as hard as possible to get things right?  Should they be sharing control (and power) with the less smart, the less trained, the less hard-working, the more likely to compromise quality?  What would you rather own, a true Giovanni Bellini, or one From the School of Giovanni Bellini?  Needing control can be not for the sake of personal power, but for the sake of getting it right.

Not to put myself in the class of Jobs and Bezos, but I was head and sole owner of a medical group.  When it came to business and medical organizations, I knew more than the constituent doctors by far: I had studied it, I continued to study it, and I continued to experience it day after day.  I made so many mistakes that I eventually learned from that no one could match me in mistakes made and lessons taught!  I had been there.

Moreover, as the owner, I had a perspective that was different from others.  I was responsible for the final product, and would have to take pride or shame from that product.  I stood to lose or make money on performance.  Growth that came from smart moves and ability to please patients and referring physicians would accrue to the group’s benefit, and to mine, and less directly to each individual clinician.  So my idea of control was grounded more on CF2, not CF1.

As an example: this may or may not be true, but I recently heard that since I sold my group one of my initiatives was proving successful.  I thought that increased patient accessibility was important, so instead of having “secret” Sunday office hours, we would publicize our availability on Sunday to patients, make the hours regular and fully staffed.  The result would be both improved patient service and improved competitive advantage for our group in attracting patients.  So, what I heard was that the Sunday hours were proving so successful that the clinicians were complaining that they were working far longer on Sundays than they were accustomed to.

If I were still in control, I would point to this as a sign of success.  Yes, it is more burdensome for clinicians, but in an area of high competition, this could prove the difference between failure vs. survival.  It could lead to actual practice expansion in a difficult locale.  But what I heard was that there was now consideration of how to curtail availability so the staff and clinicians could get out earlier.  The leadership intended to let that happen; no rocking the boat.  If I had insisted we find a way to keep the advantage and find a way either to compensate clinicians for the extra work or hire someone else, etc., would that be self-indulgent CF1?  Or would it be virtuous CF2?

Again, that’s not to compare myself to Apple or Amazon, and maybe that’s a crappy example.  But I find myself rooting for Bezos as he takes over WaPo.  There are a lot of changes he can make, and he should be the arbiter!  (One – get rid of Jennifer Rosen, por favor.)  He should find top people there and elsewhere – Jobs’ formula wasn’t to find just better engineers, but ten times better engineers, A++ engineers.  And then team with them and work really hard for a vision that works, time and time again, if that’s where his heart is.

Yes, you have to make compromises because people are people and you can’t get everything exactly right every time all by yourself.  But let’s not surrender to worries about CF1 when you are a CF2.  

Budd Shenkin

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