A local egret looks for lunch in our Cow Fountain

Management Is Dead, Long Live Management.

The Inmates Figured It Out

We all know that digital technology is changing our world. The world of the manager might well be the one that is changed the most. Their tools don’t work anymore, their compensation models are irrelevant, and their daily tasks are unfamiliar.

The bedrock of conventional management is planning, modeling, and predicting. But when innovation is your stock in trade, those tools don’t work anymore. Innovation is — by definition — doing what hasn’t been done before. You can’t plan, model, or predict it until you’ve done it a few times.

Twentieth century executives work for power, perquisites, and pay. Digital practitioners work for the satisfaction of accomplishment, learning new things, and improving the world. Executives like to win, while practitioners like the approbation of their peers.

In the past, the primary task for most managers was deciding what employees should do, then supervising them to make sure they do it. In the twenty-first century, management’s main role is to make sure that everyone is working together effectively.

Many business people, academics, and theorists have noted the failure of industrial management to turn the corner into the digital world. Peter Drucker wrote presciently 40 years ago about how knowledge work is different. Gary Hamel scourges old fashioned management that does more harm than good. Taiichi Ohno introduced the concepts of leading from the bottom in auto manufacturing.

But some of the most important and useful notions about how to actually run a twenty-first century company have come not from the experts but from the trenches.

For example, ️the open source revolution came from rank and file developers. Programmers figured that they could do better without any management involvement at all, and they were right.

Agile was invented by developers who were tired of being given bad direction by the ill-informed. Working in rapid cycles very closely with product owners provided more opportunities to ask “Why?”

Lean, which originally came from workers on the factory floor, was adapted by interaction designers and entrepreneurs because it worked better than conventional management.

️As a pioneer of interaction design, I can tell you that the entire discipline and its many brethren, like information architecture, service design, and user experience design were all developed by makers and doers and not by managers or executives.

The key to making money in the industrial age was to spend less money making your product than your competitor did. In the digital world, the key is making a product that customers desire more than they do your competitor’s product. The way to make desirable products is to work collaboratively and experimentally, from the bottom up, not from the top down. Practitioners understand this because it’s their natural way of working.

In 1998 I wrote a book called ️The Inmates are Running the Asylum. If I wrote that book today, I’d have to call it, “The Inmates Figured Out How to Run the Asylum Before Anyone Else Did.” We still need managers, probably more than we ever have, but we need them to act in a service role rather than in an authority role.


Here are more of my thoughts on Lean.