Lay Off the Managers
I see a lot of anti-management sentiment amongst the Agile development community. Well, to be honest, amongst the general development community and wider world, too.
To make any radical improvement in effectiveness of an organisation – especially in the case of the Analytic-Synergistic transition – everyone has to be engaged and supportive of the effort. Alienating a key constituency (the managers) does not seem to me to be anything but woefully counter-productive.
Some, upon reading other of my blog posts, might even assume I sympathise with this anti-management position. Actually, I don’t. Managing things, managing the way the work works (note: as opposed to managing people) adds value and brings benefits (attends to the needs of the folks that matter). I just believe that more needs will be met by not having managers doing the managing (i.e. having those doing the work managing the way said work works).
Let’s not Conflate Managers with Managing
I draw a clear distinction between managers and managing:
- Managers are the folks that, in most organisations, have the sole prerogative to do the “acts of managing”. I include executives in this, along with the middle-managers of typical organisations.
- Managing is (in its essence) the act of evaluating information, making decisions, etc. We could also call this “the act of managing” (management 1598, from “manage” 1555-1565 < Italian maneggiare to handle, train (horses) < Latin manus hand.
Managers. And managing. Let’s not conflate the two.
Just because, in typical organisations, these two things are very often manifest in the same persons, this need not necessarily be so. In the different, alien town of Radicalsville, where generalising specialists (multi-skilled people) are the norm, anyone can do the managing. Oh, and there are no “managers”, as such, just as there are no programmers, testers, designers, architects, business analysts, HR people, financial folks, sales people, or any other single-skilled specialists. This is but one implication of “self-organising” a.k.a. “self-managing” teams.
“Hate the sin, love the sinner”
~ Mohandas K Gandhi
The Dysfunction of Having Managers do the Managing
Most managers see themselves as having to sit in the driving seat, making the decisions. I can attest to the fact that it’s better (much more productive, less risky) to have the folks with the relevant information make the decisions. These days, especially in knowledge-work organisations, that’s rarely the managers. And struggling, against the grain, to get the relevant information from the front line to “the managers” is an effort fraught with dysfunction, at best.
Deming, Drucker, Ackoff, etc. all make the observation that managing is required, managers are not. A bit like planning and plans, respectively:
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
~ Dwight D Eisenhower, 34th President of the USA
So what is so dysfunctional about having the managers (exclusively) doing the managing in our knowledge-work organisations?
- Contributes to the us-vs-them, managers-vs-workers schism.
- Robs people of a sense of ownership in their work, leading to a chronic lack of motivation and engagement.
- Fundamental Attribution Error – blaming individuals for poor performance rather than seeing 95% of poor performance being the result of the way the work works.
- Misguided attempts to “manage people” through “fixing” them, rather then encouraging their strengths cf “First Break All the Rules” ~ Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman
- Preservation of the status quo.
- Stifling of Innovation.
- Wasting people’s potential.
- Siloism, politicking, tribalism and turf wars.
- Complacency and toleration of ineffectiveness, waste.
- Conformity and homogeneity.
- Lack of constancy of purpose.
- Emphasis on short-term profits (focus on stock price, quarterly dividend).
- Merit systems: appraisals, management by objective, management by fear.
- Mobility of managers, shallow knowledge of the work.
- Use of visible numbers only.
There is Still a Place for the Folks Formerly Known as Managers
There is still a place for the folks that have until now carried the title of “manager”. Just not “in charge”, with exclusivity over doing the “managing”.
A place with a different label, and a different role.
If we accept that everyone should be involved, to some greater or lesser extent, in the managing of an organisation, what about the folks formerly known as “managers”? If their traditional role is to disappear or be subsumed, what can they usefully do to add value in Radicalsville?
Well, they might choose to become multi-skilled, like the rest of the workforce. And thus play an integral (equal) role in the teams – not as in-charge managers but as team members.
Let’s not overlook the fact that these folks have skills, experience (for good or ill) and – often, deep – knowledge of the organisation and its markets, its suppliers, etc.. I posit this change has benefits for all concerned, not least for the artists formerly known as managers, themselves.
There’s also the question of equity a.k.a. fairness. Many managers I have known have been just trying to do a good job in a frustrating situation. And these folks are often just as much victims of a broken system as the workers. (Remember, Deming’s 95% rule still applies).
And then there’s the pragmatic issue of support. You’ve probably heard Upton Sinclair’s dictum:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
~ Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr. circa 1932
Bringing about radical transitions in any organisation requires, first and foremost that folks feel safe, secure and valued as individuals. Even the faintest hint that the organisation is beginning to see managers as redundant will doom any transition to early and abject failure.
So, tell me, what do you think? Lay off the managers – or lay off the managers?
Get rid of managers and we’ll all be happier – Management-Issues blog post
How I improved my business by getting rid of managers – SmartCompany article
Should We Get Rid of the Managers? (Human Resources) – IOAtWork article
First, Let’s Fire All the Managers – Harvard Business Review article
Who Needs Management?! – StickyMinds article
Who needs managers? – KDE.org blog post
Agile management – an oxymoron?: who needs managers anyway? – ACM Digital Library article (fee required)
The Great Game of Business – Jack Stack (book, recommended)
BBC “Ban the Boss” programme (video) about Blaenau Gwent council