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Innovate with Form and Function

Innovate with Form and Function

Form Follows Function.

Or does it?

This phrase appealed to the common-sensible manager in me from the very first time I heard it. It seemed so pragmatic; so logical and reasonable; matter-of-fact even.

In business early on, I was taught that good managers manage good processes. While earning some of my supervisory stripes in the heyday of the Total Quality Management movement I learned how to hunt and destroy process variation like a heat-seeking missile. So the concept that form —in other words, our form called the operational process— would naturally, practically, and sequentially follow the function it was intended to support, automate, or make easy in some way, was divine. I wanted to believe in it.

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How very naïve I was.

The phrase may largely hold true with invention: Function defines need, and the form of the invention follows. My son recalls the phrase as a relentless lesson of his biology teacher; there is a reason different life forms have evolved as they have. Yet our behavior at work is not necessarily as logical, nor as natural.

I’ve learned that the origin of the phrase “form follows function” has its roots in architectural design. This is from Wikipedia:

The origin of the phrase is traced back to the American sculptor Horatio Greenough, but it was American architectural giant Louis Henri Sullivan who adopted it and made it famous. Sullivan actually said ‘form ever follows function’, but the simpler (and less emphatic) phrase is the one usually remembered. For Sullivan this was distilled wisdom, an aesthetic credo, the single “rule that shall permit of no exception”.

Well, most naiveté long gone, this older manager has gotten wiser. (Or let’s just say more battle worn, for I’m still working on the wisdom part.) In stepping back far enough to have some operational objectivity, looking at a whole slew of different operational processes with a bigger curiosity, I’ve come to know that ‘form follows function’ is not necessarily a “rule that shall permit of no exception.”

Operational process is just one type of form. In our workplaces, it can be an interesting brainstorm to separate when in fact, function has followed form. In doing the exercise with my own work team at Say Leadership Coaching, we can often discover some ways in which our adopted form has followed precedent, and diagnosis made, we have learned to get better at asking ourselves “Why?”

  • Why do we do it (whatever the function is) this way?
  • Why have we accepted this (the traditional, or precedent-comfortable form)?
  • Why haven’t we been bolder, or taken a different route? Can, and should we innovate?
  • Why do we perceive certain obstacles? Exactly what are the risks?
  • Why not tweak it somehow, experiment, or run a new pilot? What more can we learn?

Guess what normally happens in this questioning? We discover that neither form nor function is as static as we may have once thought. Function can grow so much larger; it begins to look like new possibility. Improvement follows, and soon, on its heels can come innovation.

So now, the phrase of choice in my company, and in my coaching, has become form and function. The coaching is to look at processes from both directions;

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a) to uncover the true cause and effect of what we do, and
b) to be sure we are not too quick to settle on the first answer.

Finding more answers, and finding new answers, is where we innovate.

Form and function leads to many more ways to think, and to question, and it can serve us wonderfully. Add the phrase to the process design within your workplace, and discover where you are meant to innovate. Create your new best.

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Rosa Say is the author of Managing with Aloha, Bringing Hawaii’s Universal Values to the Art of Business and the Talking Story blog. She is the founder and head coach of Say Leadership Coaching, a company dedicated to bringing nobility to the working arts of management and leadership. For more of her ideas, click to her Thursday columns in the archives; you’ll find her index in the left column of www.ManagingWithAloha.com

Rosa’s Previous Thursday Column was: Huddle up; Meet well

More by this author

Rosa Say

Rosa is an author and blogger who dedicates to helping people thrive in the work and live with purpose.

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Last Updated on March 29, 2021

5 Types of Horrible Bosses and How to Beat Them All

5 Types of Horrible Bosses and How to Beat Them All

When I left university I took a job immediately, I had been lucky as I had spent a year earning almost nothing as an intern so I was offered a role. On my first day I found that I had not been allocated a desk, there was no one to greet me so I was left for some hours ignored. I happened to snipe about this to another employee at the coffee machine two things happened. The first was that the person I had complained to was my new manager’s wife, and the second was, in his own words, ‘that he would come down on me like a ton of bricks if I crossed him…’

What a great start to a job! I had moved to a new city, and had been at work for less than a morning when I had my first run in with the first style of bad manager. I didn’t stay long enough to find out what Mr Agressive would do next. Bad managers are a major issue. Research from Approved Index shows that more than four in ten employees (42%) state that they have previously quit a job because of a bad manager.

The Dream Type Of Manager

My best manager was a total opposite. A man who had been the head of the UK tax system and was working his retirement running a company I was a very junior and green employee for. I made a stupid mistake, one which cost a lot of time and money and I felt I was going to be sacked without doubt.

I was nervous, beating myself up about what I had done, what would happen. At the end of the day I was called to his office, he had made me wait and I had spent that day talking to other employees, trying to understand where I had gone wrong. It had been a simple mistyped line of code which sent a massive print job out totally wrong. I learn how I should have done it and I fretted.

My boss asked me to step into his office, he asked me to sit down. “Do you know what you did?” I babbled, yes, I had been stupid, I had not double-checked or asked for advice when I was doing something I had not really understood. It was totally my fault. He paused. “Will you do that again?” Of course I told him I would not, I would always double check, ask for help and not try to be so clever when I was not!

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“Okay…”

That was it. I paused and asked, should I clear my desk. He smiled. “You have learnt a valuable lesson, I can be sure that you will never make a mistake like that again. Why would I want to get rid of an employee who knows that?”

I stayed with that company for many years, the way I was treated was a real object lesson in good management. Sadly, far too many poor managers exist out there.

The Complete Catalogue of Bad Managers

The Bully

My first boss fitted into the classic bully class. This is so often the ‘old school’ management by power style. I encountered this style again in the retail sector where one manager felt the only way to get the best from staff was to bawl and yell.

However, like so many bullies you will often find that this can be someone who either knows no better or is under stress and they are themselves running scared of the situation they have found themselves in.

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The Invisible Boss

This can either present itself as management from afar (usually the golf course or ‘important meetings) or just a boss who is too busy being important to deal with their staff.

It can feel refreshing as you will often have almost total freedom with your manager taking little or no interest in your activities, however you will soon find that you also lack the support that a good manager will provide. Without direction you may feel you are doing well just to find that you are not delivering against expectations you were not told about and suddenly it is all your fault.

The Micro Manager

The frustration of having a manager who feels the need to be involved in everything you do. The polar opposite to the Invisible Boss you will feel that there is no trust in your work as they will want to meddle in everything you do.

Dealing with the micro-manager can be difficult. Often their management style comes from their own insecurity. You can try confronting them, tell them that you can do your job however in many cases this will not succeed and can in fact make things worse.

The Over Promoted Boss

The Over promoted boss categorises someone who has no idea. They have found themselves in a management position through service, family or some corporate mystery. They are people who are not only highly unqualified to be managers they will generally be unable to do even your job.

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You can find yourself persistently frustrated by the situation you are in, however it can seem impossible to get out without handing over your resignation.

The Credit Stealer

The credit stealer is the boss who will never publically acknowledge the work you do. You will put in the extra hours working on a project and you know that, in the ‘big meeting’ it will be your credit stealing boss who will take all of the credit!

Again it is demoralising, you see all of the credit for your labour being stolen and this can often lead to good employees looking for new careers.

3 Essential Ways to Work (Cope) with Bad Managers

Whatever type of bad boss you have there are certain things that you can do to ensure that you get the recognition and protection you require to not only remain sane but to also build your career.

1. Keep evidence

Whether it is incidents with the bully or examples of projects you have completed with the credit stealer you will always be well served to keep notes and supporting evidence for projects you are working on.

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Buy your own notebook and ensure that you are always making notes, it becomes a habit and a very useful one as you have a constant reminder as well as somewhere to explore ideas.

Importantly, if you do have to go to HR or stand-up for yourself you will have clear records! Also, don’t always trust that corporate servers or emails will always be available or not tampered with. Keep your own content.

2. Hold regular meetings

Ensure that you make time for regular meetings with your boss. This is especially useful for the over-promoted or the invisible boss to allow you to ‘manage upwards’. Take charge where you can to set your objectives and use these meetings to set clear objectives and document the status of your work.

3. Stand your ground, but be ready to jump…

Remember that you don’t have to put up with poor management. If you have issues you should face them with your boss, maybe they do not know that they are coming across in a bad way.

However, be ready to recognise if the situation is not going to change. If that is the case, keep your head down and get working on polishing your CV! If it isn’t working, there will be something better out there for you!

Good luck!

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