Surely You Can’t Mean That?

Surely You Can’t Mean That?


I regularly talk with business people about improving their software and product development, and their businesses as a whole, more and more dependent as these businesses are on these capabilities. The reaction I see far more often than most others is – incredulity.

“Surely you can’t mean that??”

Collaborative Knowledge Work

“Collaborative knowledge work is fundamentally different to the kinds of work you and your people are used to. It will require fundamental shifts in how you approach the whole idea of work.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


“Managers and management are antithetical to collaborative knowledge work – you’ll have to find some other things to which these folks can apply their skills and experience.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


“The best people to decide how the work should work are the people doing the work. Not the managers.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


“In Scrum, there are only three roles: Developer, Scrum Master and Product Owner.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


“The one key element to productivity in collaborative knowledge work is the quality of the relationships between people.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


“Doing work in projects inflates your costs, demoralises workers, and sucks management attention. You would be well served to find some other approach.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


“Looking for certainty – of timescales, costs, quality, outcomes – is a Fool’s Errand. Get comfortable with uncertainty, and focus instead on flexibility and reducing delays.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


“The days of a sellers’ market are over. Winning businesses will be those that discover how to compete successfully in a buyers’ market.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


“Telling capable employees what to do and how to do it only demoralises and demotivates them. Move from telling to serving.”

“What?!? Surely you can’t mean that?”


All these are incredible, unbelievable, and utterly essential ideas in the world of collaborative knowledge work. How can we all stop drawing sharp intakes of breath, and come to terms with these – and many other –  impossible-to-believe ideas?

– Bob


  1. Tobias said:

    Brilliant. Succinct and absolutely accurate. I experience the same kind of responses. There is so much to shift, that these days I’ve become content with small nudges. Well, it’s a start.

  2. Paul Beckford said:

    The incredulity works both ways…. 🙂

    For example did you know that company law (at least in the UK) specifically states that it is the legal responsibility of directors to maximise returns to shareholders?

    Now the law says nothing about society, or employees or even customers. Their legal obligation is solely to their shareholders. Is it any wonder that they do everything they can to maximise short term shareholder returns (like disempowering workers and paying them as little as possible)?

    In a sense it is us who are out of touch. The rise of the company as a legal entity,has always served the interests of a very small group of people; namely investors.


    • Paul: maximising short term value for stakeholders is not maximising value for stakeholders.
      You also make the assumption (just like many others in the world) that with some of the remarks that Bob makes, that when you implement them, there is less shareholder value, my experience is that they actually give a bigger ROI.
      (I do agree it is counter intuitive. )

      • Paul Beckford said:

        It’s not me you’ve got to argue with 🙂

        I’m merely reflecting the realities on the ground.

        Alas we have to deal with the world as we find it, not as we would like!

        BTW Investors can sell and buy their shares at a whim. They have no incentive to be in it for the long term.


      • >Investors can sell and buy their shares at a whim. They have no incentive to be in it for the long term.
        yes but that supporting short sellers is not part of the legal obligation.

        You say “Alas we have to deal with the world as we find it, not as we would like!”
        What you describe is not the world as I know it.

        I have experienced many many times that by doing what Bob describes that is good for the stakeholder long term.

      • Paul Beckford said:

        Hi Yves,

        I think you are missing my point. I am saying that global capitalism as it stands today doesn’t necessarily work as we are led to believe. I agree that what Bob says is true if we have free markets. I would argue though that in general markets today aren’t free, but are rigged in favour of vested interests (why else invest in nuclear aircraft carriers?). The consequence is that customers are disempowered.

        Another assumption is that shareholders are obliged to make a long term commitment. The simple fact is that they are not. As it happens I agree with everything Bob says, but you will find that the ideas expressed tend to find most traction in private Companies (in the absence of shareholder pressure), and they are best expressed in Cooperatives like the Mondragon Cooperation:

        This isn’t by chance. I am arguing that the world isn’t the way it is by accident or through ignorance, but by design. It is in the interests of some not to adhere to what Bob describes. It is a narrow interest; true, but a reality none the less, and we need to recognise it for what it is.

        The last thing I want to say is that what we advocate needs to be evidenced based. The evidence is that these ideas have been repeatedly rejected by the vast majority of corporations for over 40 years now. Mere advocacy will not make a difference. As Einstein once said, doing the same thing and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

        Now if you are talking about starting a corporation of your own… I’m all ears 🙂


  3. Empower people. Listen to the voice of the employee (VoE). Ask the associate what their KPIs should be. Don’t move ahead with a project or implementation without first asking for employee recommendations. Teamwork helps where leaders are part of the team.

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