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Jen Prout of The Full Belmonty recently posted about the various organizational and management lessons to be learned by watching CBS’s new reality show, “Undercover Boss”.  Each week, the show follows a CEO as they go undercover, posing as a new hire or trainee, working at various locations.  The basic plot is that the CEO’s learn quite a bit about what policies are working and which aren’t as they immerse themselves in the front lines of their business.  Jen rightly points out that anyone watching the show should immediately notice the significant communication problems that exist at the firms whose CEO’s decide to take part in the show.  In a well run organization, CEO’s would have an idea of certain problems with their business before ever having to go undercover in this way:

It appears that these undercover bosses are employing a one-way, top-down management approach and not actively engaging in a two-way dialogue with their employees to make more informed and effective operating decisions.  Employees are an organization’s best source of knowledge and can be their greatest asset for building a successful company if the employees are properly engaged.

True enough.  Any organization that does not employ adequate feedback mechanisms are just asking for trouble.  However, watching the show made me think of something else–research methodology.

I recently read Tim Brown’s Change By Design. Brown is the CEO of the highly-acclaimed design firm IDEO. In his book, and at his firm, a great deal of stock is put into field observation and even participant observation. These are qualitative methodologies through which researchers can learn a great deal about a subject by observing them in their own environment versus simply asking them questions.  While interviews and surveys are great sources of information, often times subjects may not realize all that they do or what is truly important.  They view the world and their environment through their own lens and as a result emphasize and de-emphasize various items.  Observing subjects directly, and in some cases participating oneself, can lead to greater insights and pertinent details even if the subject is unaware of them:

The psychologist Jane Fulton Suri, one of the pioneers of human factors research, refers to the myriad “thoughtless acts” people perform throughout the day.

In each episode of “Undercover Boss” the CEO’s are jolted by the outcomes of the policies that they or their management team instituted from their corner offices.  Many times, what they witness is that the assumptions they made about efficiency and staffing, while looking good on paper, do not work so well in practice.  Either the policies do not work as intended, or they create unintended consequences that are severely detrimental to employee satisfaction and morale.  In some cases, the employees point the problems out themselves (classic interview), in others the problems emerge simply by observing how employees go about their day (human factors approach).  In the very first episode, the CEO of Waste Management rides along with a female driver and realizes that the performance goals they set as a result of their new efficiency initiative did not take into account a driver’s need to use a restroom.

While I freely admit that “Undercover Boss” is certainly produced and staged, as any ‘reality show’ will be, I think that it does illustrate the value of not only leveraging qualitative methodologies to evaluate business decisions, but of their necessity in serving as a counterbalance to an overly quantitative, theoretical approach.