Assumption jumping and the senior manager

Cat Michael Fraizer has a conventional problem.

Windows of opportunity open and close so quickly today, you can’t just mull decisions right in front of you.  You have to look around the corner and figure out where you need to go, without becoming spastic or jerking your company in too many directions.  (Michael Fraizer, CEO Genworth Financial)

Michael Frazier has an unconventional solution.

Mr. Fraizer regularly fires himself.  (Carol Hymowitz, WSJ)

This proves to be a good way for Fraizer to react to windows of opportunity.  After all, new windows take new assumptions.  You can pop the hood, reach in and see if you can identify all the operative assumptions, and adjust them (as you use them).  It’s tough to do this at all.  It’s really tough to do it in real time.

Or you can just start again.  In which case, you give yourself a pink slip, break all ties with the person you were as the old CEO.  Go for a vacation, or perhaps just drive around the block, and come back a new man (or woman). 

The "start fresh" principle is well known terrain for certain purposes.  Thanks to the work of Tom Peters and several others, we know how often and how much the corporation can change.  Thanks to the work of Rosabeth Moss Kantner, we know how tough it is to try to transition from old to new managerial philosophy, strategy, and tactics. 

But this tactic, of firing ourselves, this is new and it takes us in a new direction.  Here the managerial literature is a little less forthcoming.  We could think of this as a multiplicity theme, and if we think about it this way, we may draw upon a lots of ferment that has taken place in contemporary culture.  We have contemplate "multiple selves" and sudden discontinuities a lot. 

There is actually a movie called multiplicity.  Robin Williams’ stage act is a study in managing multiplicity.  Indeed, many celebrities have made a habit, if not a strategy, of moving from persona to persona.  Madonna is everyone’s favorite example here.  But we know see multiplicity practiced by everyone from Christina Agulera to Beck.  So it is not as if managers must solve this problem all on their own.  Our culture precedes them. 

But there is another way to do this.  It is to cultivate what we might call a capacity for frame mobility. Frame mobility is the ability to reconfigure one’s head so that new assumptions apply, and then to move between this "frames" as we contemplate our options.  This is a habit that anthropologists have had to cultivate for professional purposes.  They need to be able to see things first with these assumptions in place, and then with these very different ones. 

We can cultivate this with training.  We can learn to "assumption jump"

This is actually then moving violently from one self to a new one.  The advantage is that we get to takes things with us as we go.  We don’t have to "forget everything we know."  We have the opportunity actually to take advantage of those hard earned revelation.  And of course this is precisely what we want to do.  After all, it makes just as much, perhaps more, sense for the corporation to fire us and hire someone new.  (And if this is not what we mean, then we are tacitly acknowledging that in fact the new CEO is actually smuggling in some of what the old CEO knows.)

But however we accomplish it, this will have to be an exercise in managed multiplicity, and that drops the CEO who often likes to keep his or her distance from contemporary culture right into the middle of this culture.  And that, for anthropological purposes, is interesting too. 

References

Hymowitz, Carol.  2006.  Fire Yourself — Then Come Back and Act Like a New Boss Would.  Wall Street Journal.  October 9, 2006.

2 thoughts on “Assumption jumping and the senior manager”

  1. Hi Grant,

    I like your articulation of frame mobility. It sounds a lot like what children who have led highly mobile childhoods crossing multiple cultures due to their parent’s profession do almost intuitively rather than through training. Norma McCaig of George Mason U coined the term “global nomad” for this category and her research [and others] demonstrates that this particular population “assumption jump” almost as a matter of course. A “role” for each location, and one that takes on the chameleon like characteristics of the socio cultural norms of that location or milieu. Maybe trained anthropologists with that kind of a background would be an interesting group to encounter?

    http://www.globalnomads-dc.org/32201.html

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