David Burkus on “Under New Management”: An interview by Bob Morris


Burkus, DavidDavid Burkus is a best-selling author, an award-winning podcaster, and management professor. In 2015, he was named one of the emerging thought leaders most likely to shape the future of business by Thinkers50, the world’s premier ranking of management thinkers.

His latest book, Under New Management: How Leading Organizations Are Upending Business as Usual, reveals the counterintuitive leadership practices that actually enhance engagement and drive performance in companies. He is also the author of The Myths of Creativity. David is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review and Forbes. His work has been featured in Fast Company, Inc., the Financial Times, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and on CBS This Morning.

David’s innovative views on leadership have earned him invitations to speak to leaders from a variety of organizations. He’s delivered keynote speeches and workshops for Fortune 500 companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Stryker; at in-demand conferences such as SXSW and TEDx events; and to governmental leaders and military leaders at the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Postgraduate School. He’s also the host of the award-winning podcast Radio Free Leader.

When he’s not speaking or writing, David is in the classroom. He is associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on organizational behavior, creativity and innovation, and strategic leadership. David was recently named one of the “Top 40 under 40 Professors Who Inspire.” He serves on the advisory board of Fuse Corps, a nonprofit dedicated to making transformative and replicable change in local government.

David lives in Tulsa with his wife and their two sons.

Here is an excerpt from my interview of him.

* * *

Morris: Before discussing Under New Management, a few general questions. Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Burkus: I love this one because it highlights the power of good questions. As I discussed in my previous book, we like to think of great insights as coming in a flash…but more often it’s a slow hunch while we investigate a new question.

Morris: From T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Burkus: I agree. I think part of what motivated me to write the new book was how fascinated I was by corporate and entrepreneurial leaders who were looking at their company and their workplace with fresh eyes….which led to fresh questions…which then led to fresh insights.

Morris: From John Steinbeck: “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Burkus: I talked about this a bit in my first book, that all ideas are combinations of preexisting ideas. So as ideas merge, clash, and otherwise combine, you end up with a whole new deck of ideas from which to draw.

Morris: From John Cage: “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

Burkus: YES! Admittedly, I’d not heard this quote until now but I love it. It highlights the thesis of Under New Management….that the old ideas are causing all sorts of damage. The new ideas might seem scary, but they are better than business as usual.

Morris: My own rather extensive involvement with change initiatives suggests that those who defend the status quo tend to have been among the leaders to replace the previous one. Based on what you have observed, is this generally true? Please explain.

Burkus: I don’t have any solid data for it, but in my experience it tends to be true. With the caveat that those who rose to power through the old system are also interested in keeping it…whether or not it replaced a previous way of working or not.

Morris: In a previously published book, you discuss several “myths of creativity.” In your opinion, what are the most enduring – and troublesome – myths about leadership? What, in fact, is true?

Burkus: The most damaging to organizations is probably what I call “the mouse trap myth,” from the maxim “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” In reality, if you built a better mousetrap, the world probably won’t notice or might reject it. In fact, creative new ideas get rejected all the time.

The truth is that humans have a cognitive bias against the new and original ideas. The best, most innovative leaders know this and work around it by testing ideas before judging them and letting the results guide their thinking.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Under New Management. When and why did you decide to write it?

Burkus: During the writing for my last book, I started noticing that “creative” companies had policies that were just a little bit quirky and different compared to business as usual. I couldn’t stop noticing these different policies…from unlimited vacation to ditching performance appraisals. But I also saw them through the lens of organizational psychology…and the research and theories about human behavior that these policies were actually more aligned with than the typical management practices.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Burkus: I was not expecting to become an advocate for salary transparency. I started writing the book thinking that salaries were private information and that, whatever the benefits of transparency, keeping it private was worth it. It turns out it’s the other way around. Privacy comes at a high cost, and transparency has many benefits. From increasing morale and collaboration to decreasing the gender wage gap. Transparency makes a lot of sense and it’s a trend I hope will continue.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Burkus: Well, I didn’t originally plan to write a chapter about open office floor plans, but my editor convinced me to take a look at it. When I did, I found that we’ve been moving toward more and more open offices under the assumption that it’s good for collaboration and creativity. And that may be true, but the real reason for the trend is just how much money is saved by cramming more people into less total square footage. There is research supporting the creativity claims, but there is also research showing open offices increase stress levels, decrease productivity, and even increase the number of sick days employees take. The costs just aren’t worth the benefits.

* * *

To read the complete interview, please click here.

David cordially invites you to check out the resources at his website.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s