To celebrate its 50th anniversary, McKinsey Quarterly is honoring legendary business thinker Marvin Bower by reprinting excerpts from his 1966 classic, The Will to Manage. (Bower was McKinsey & Company's managing director from 1950 to 1967.)

Here are three highlights from Chapters 2 and 5, in which Bower describes how teams and organizations can become more organized and cohesive. 

1. Decide who does what. Decide it as soon as you can. Bower illustrates how important this is with a beautiful anecdote about golf plans:

One summer afternoon a friend telephoned me about a golf game. He had a twosome and was looking for two more people. I accepted, and we spent a minute discussing whom we might get as the fourth. But we did not settle on anyone. Nor did we decide which of us was to get the fourth.

The next day I met another member of the club. He agreed to join us, and I immediately called my friend with the news. But in the meantime he too had invited a guest, so we had one too many. I called back the member I had invited and told him of our plight. He was most understanding and readily agreed to withdraw. So no harm was done.

Even so, the incident was embarrassing to me, and it could easily have been avoided. All we had needed to do in our first telephone conversation was to follow one of the most fundamental principles of organization: decide who does what. In more technical terms, we should have fixed on one of us the responsibility for getting the fourth player and delegated the authority to do so.

It's easy to understand how this behavior pertains to team tasks in business settings. Sometimes, out of courtesy, teammates get shy about asking the extra questions. They err on the side of silence, when instead they should err on the side of over-communicating. 

2. Articulate your company's philosophies and beliefs. Don't just let them happen by trial and error. These beliefs do not have to be super-specific. In fact, Bower believes they should be "basic enough to become overriding guidelines to action." Here are four beliefs Bower frequently found "in the most successful corporations."

  • Maintenance of high ethical standards in external and internal relationships.
  • Decisions should be based on facts, objectively considered.
  • People should be judged on the basis of their performance, not on personality, education, or personal traits and skills.
  • The business should be administered with a sense of competitive urgency.

The key to making your company's beliefs take hold is for leaders to consistently articulate them, in reference to ongoing business realities. "Relate it to actual situations and problems at hand, and point out to subordinates where their actions square, or fail to square, with the beliefs of the organization," writes Bower. 

3. Try to determine what is right, not who is right. Bower delineates two types of authority in organizations: Line authority and functional authority. Line authority is straight-up, chain-of-command, hierarchy: A leader with line authority is the leader who can hire and fire. The leader who can say, "Do it, and do it now." 

Line authority exists in all organizations. But the strongest teams, Bower argues, will balance line authority with functional authority. Functional authority, simply put, is the power to insist upon high standards. Bower explains: 

Just as the holder of line authority says, "do it," and "do it now," the holder of functional authority says, "if and when you do it, do it this way--or in accordance with this policy or standard."

You can see why functional authority is important. By emphasizing a high objective standard, rather than a high-ranking individual's power, functional authority has the power to depersonalize tasks and instructions. Functional authority allows members of the team to feel as if they are doing something the right way--not just because their boss told them so.

"Under such a philosophy, people will try to determine what is right, not who is right," notes Bower. "People can change their positions with less damage to their pride; issues can be resolved in a factual atmosphere with fewer injured feelings, less 'showing the other guy,' and fewer I-told-you-so's."

What's the best way for leaders to establish a functional authority that will truly resonate with employees? Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman of The Boston Consulting Group recently laid out a three-step process. One of their steps is to "create conditions in which people have reasons to do what you want them to do." 

The result, they argue, will be a strong alignment between what your employees really want to do and what's best for your organization.

Which is better than what you'd get by merely imposing your authority.

Published on: Jul 7, 2014