Lay Off the Managers

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.
  • Bureaucracy.
  • Complacency and toleration of ineffectiveness, waste.
  • Conformity and homogeneity.

See also this 1984 video of Dr Deming explaining the Five Deadly Diseases:

  1. Lack of constancy of purpose.
  2. Emphasis on short-term profits (focus on stock price, quarterly dividend).
  3. Merit systems: appraisals, management by objective, management by fear.
  4. Mobility of managers, shallow knowledge of the work.
  5. 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?

– Bob

Further Reading

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? – 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

  1. aidylewis said:

    We are not against managers; we are against a clique of command-and-control managers. Managers are valueless, if not dangerous, when they are distanced from the mode-of-production. How many times have we seen non-technical managers making technical decisions (even at the level of whether a developer can practice TDD or pair)? Agile’s core is self-organisation and that means we manage ourselves and leaders come into being dependant on the context. Those imposing their will upon teams are running organisations into the ground. We should abolish the separation of management and work, and not lay these people off, but bring them into the team to offer what skills they have and re-skill.

  2. Hi Bob,
    I am confused. You talk about all the dysfunctions where managers are doing the management and then your only “value” statement is that they are working as another team member.

    If they are working as another team member that is great, I don’t have a problem with that, but when that happens they are no longer “managing” or even “leading” they are “working” or better yet “contributing”.

    Everyone should be respected, not just managers.

    So please explain again – what value does a manager provide? What do the managers at say Wholefoods do, in an environment that is completely empowering and everyone is capable of management?

    • Bob has clarified/re-written to make clearer, I retract my comments 🙂

  3. Jeffrey Massung said:

    I gotta say, this is probably one of the worst posts on management I’ve read. You are describing bad management and applying your observations uniformly across all managers and leaders. And, this seems to be a very common theme around the internet lately, especially in programming/engineering circles.

    Management (aka “leadership”) – good management – is about team building, making decisions with higher-level knowledge that others shouldn’t be concerned with (e.g. having enough money to make payroll), acting as a buffer between workers and “troubles”, empowering people so they can perform their best, letting them know they are valued, keeping every focused on long-term goals, etc. Management is *not* about “bossing” people or hiding information.

    Even in your own article you describe good managers, yet in the same breath make the claim they aren’t necessary. Imagine WW II without Ike; do you honestly think Patton and Monty would have been able to agree on *anything*? Do you think a few hundred battalions with no end-goal other than “defeat Germany” would have been able to accomplish that end?

    My experience has been that bad managers are essentially born from one of two groups: college – someone specifically schooled in “managing” and did so to be “the boss”, and engineering (or “up through the ranks”) – someone the company found to be great at doing their job and therefore assumed they would be equally good at managing more people doing the same work. Neither is true. Great leaders and managers can come from anywhere, but managers should never have something to prove, and they also need to be able to let go (something engineers are horrible at) and let others take control of their destiny… just guide, mentor, etc.

    – jeff

  4. Kris C said:

    Jeffrey Massung +1

    The military analogy came to mind to me as well. An army can’t plan it’s own strategy without planners, and will be most effective with inspirational leaders (see Churchill) that carry not only the army but the entire country with them.

  5. I like the thoughts behind the article Bob, some I agree with and others I do not.

    The change in management is from one of managing people to managing systems and projects. There still needs to be someone be it a Product Owner or a Scrum Master that people can look to for support, help, guidance and many other managers tasks.

    Jurgen Appelo in their book management 3.0 ( gives a clear indication of the role of managers going forward in the world of knowledge workers.

    There is still a need for a manager style role but there is also a need to be better at delegating rather than controlling.

    The seven steps of delegation:

    Tell: You make a decision for others and you may explain your motivation. A discussion about it is neither desired nor assumed.
    Sell: You make a decision for others but try to convince them that you made the right choice, and you help them feel involved.
    Consult: You ask for input first, which you take it into consideration before making a decision that respects people’s opinions.
    Agree: You enter into a discussion with everyone involved, and as a group you reach consensus about the decision.
    Advise: You will offer others your opinion and hope they listen to your wise words, but it will be their decision, not yours.
    Inquire: You first leave it to the others to decide, and afterwards, you ask them to convince you of the wisdom of their decision.
    Delegate: You leave the decision to them and you don’t even want to know about details that would just clutter your brain

    This approach gives managers the ability to let go of power and support the teams in being successful.

    To answer your question regarding lay off the managers – we need to better support managers to enable them to be valuable in this knowledge worker business world.

    PS I am not a manager so no self-interest here for myself.

    • I’ll take Semler “The key to management is to get rid of the managers” over Appelo any day of the week.

      – Bob

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