The abject end of management

Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer

Credit: BBC

Management in general has been in trouble for a long time, decades. It is in trouble because too much of the time it is narrowly self-justifying and plays no useful social or economic role. At root, organisations are often better off in many, many ways without their managers.

Not only are managers narrow in what they do within an organisation, they result in organisations that are too narrow in their engagement, or lack of it, with the economy.

I want to put to one side the equally tortured question of leadership. People in the vast leadership industry simply re-invent what leadership might mean every time there is evidence that leadership is not delivering. Like changing managers at a football club, it’s more of the same that is clearly different. Barren conversations include both the “we need leadership around here, not management” and the “leadership is fine but now we are growing we need more control” narratives.

To go straight to the heart of this question: there are people who do the work, who are in the thick of the context of the work. They have an awareness of what they are in, what they are doing, that goes far beyond anything they are conscious of or could communicate. And there are people one or several steps removed from that who “manage” the workers and the context without being in it. This is an old, old division of labour that has in the past worked well.

In the heyday of management, workers played roles more akin to the smart machines and AI of today. On the original Ford production line, recent immigrants often did not speak English. In the McDonalds of today, standardisation of burger flipping is everything. When the question is to use a human resource that is under-developed or being exploited is the question, management is called for. If you want to see the transition, then the change from local, dedicated crews of track engineers looking after the UK railways to a contract system with more replaceable labour led to a spate of rail accidents.

What has changed? Mostly the complexity of the work situation, which is often irreducible without sacrificing important aspects of the work.

Given that definition, that workers are inextricable from the context of the work, some “managers” are actually workers. And some workers are actually in bullshit jobs that no-one would miss if they got swept away. And that is the point of this blog, that we need a different standpoint to recognise activity that is simply a self-justifying waste of everyone’s time and resources. We also need to recognise the work that no-one notices, work that is actually fundamental to achievement, but in an embarrassing or simply invisible way.

To follow that thought, we have commented previously that if “management” can’t see what needs doing (the normal case) then some necessary things will get done under the radar, outside the oversight and purview of those who think they are in charge. This is an aspect of the Seeing Like a State syndrome, where the oversight itself damages both the work and the capacity for work.

What sort of insight and logic needs to be brought to the question of how work organisation emerges? If a manager emerged[1] in a situation and seriously attempted to get to a point where they were no longer needed, that would be different. But the ratchet always seems to work towards hiring more managers, managing more things, with the occasional convulsion of a so-called reorganisation when some middle managers may be culled. You can tell from the dynamics that this isn’t real change.

Before you point it out to me yourself, I am writing a contradiction here, so let’s embrace it. I think it is valid for me to say “in terms of what this organisation could achieve in the world, and indeed in terms of its self-declared aims and goals, it seems it would go better and further without its managers”. But if I say “I think if we organised the work this way it would be more effective”, then I am being a manager and contradicting my own argument. The difference can be subtle. Remember my heuristic that if my answer to an issue is that you need my services, then I am not in good faith. And anyway we are turning our backs here on the whole notion of solutions,[2] which largely belong in management space.

The single most common diagnostic moment is when a cost-cutting intervention by a manager leads inexorably to greater costs. Find me the manager who says “it would have been better for everyone if I had not done that”.[3]

Management’s right to manage

We used to hear a lot about management’s right to manage. Of course it doesn’t need stating unless it is in doubt: often, in the past, because a strong union is forcibly denying its premises. In the age of zero hour contracts the phrase doesn’t make any sense. Having achieved the unquestioned right to decide what next, we notice that management effectiveness has gone down and not up. And that levels of engagement at work threaten to go negative.[4]

In a previous blog we spoke of schismogenesis. We love big powerful words here. How do things fall apart? What is the dynamic that leads to splitting? How do managers and their workers come to inhabit different universes?[5] Clearly it doesn’t just happen overnight, but no-one seems to be talking about the patterns that lead to it. Because managers have a right to manage, after all.

From the perspective of a worker, what is the situation if, in their opinion from their standpoint, the manager’s decisions will lead to poor outcomes for the organisation? Is it OK for management to run things into the ground? To be corrupt? To be caught out by the competition? To make decisions that will place people’s lives at risk? Do these things ever happen? Every day.[6]

There are two possible patterns in schismogenesis, as described by Gregory Bateson in the 30’s. There is a symmetrical pattern where two parties compete like in an arms race. And there is a complementary pattern where when one party asserts themselves, the other party become increasingly acquiescent. In our culture we do not often notice that the complementary pattern still leads to schism. Perhaps in domestic violence we can see it.

If management has become dominant to an unhealthy degree, the pattern we are looking for is that every time management asserts itself, the people working for them become more craven. And the obvious problem that this pattern introduces is that there is no way for management to learn what workers are learning as they try to do their job. Firstly, workers give up trying to communicate and secondly, management give up trying to hear. If your instinct is to respond that it doesn’t have to be like that, then yes, and we are describing a dynamic that leads to it being like that.

Even though we are not in solution mode here, the general principle if you want to grapple with this dynamic is that too much complementary pattern has to be balanced by symmetric pattern activities and vice versa. Which means there must be some time or context or activity when workers and managers meet on a fully peer to peer basis.[7]You will not find it difficult to find some resistance to that idea!

A brush with complexity

If the fundamental issue is complexity and who can understand or at least deal with it, then let’s sketch the how complexity plays out. I am blue in the face from repeatedly insisting that we are not in fact individuals. Russ Ackoff said that he could always find a way to improve the performance of a particular activity in an organisation such that the overall performance of the organisation got worse. The general point is that what controls performance lies in the connections between people and the joins between activities, not in the parts themselves. It is not a coincidence that managers are given part of the organisation to manage: I would say they are being set up to fail, either to fail themselves or to fail the organisation.

Margaret Heffernan in the much-admired TED talk Superchickens is making the same point: optimising the egg laying capacity of individual hens does not optimise the egg laying capacity of the flock, in fact it reduces it. It is the interaction between hens that makes a flock a flock. Duh!

We are not individuals, at least in the fact that we are strongly shaped by our immediate context as explored in last week’s blog on identity. What we can discover about ourselves and the world is determined by what the people around us think and do. We are part of that and they are part of us. Nora Bateson would talk about symmathesy and the trees in the forest all adapting to each other, and of course communicating in ways we cannot see.

In these terms of complexity, the manager is precisely not a manager in the sense we understand it. A manager can only be another tree in the forest and the manager’s effect on the other trees cannot controlled by the “manager” no matter what he or she does. There cannot be a controller of the system inside the system and there is no way to be outside the system. Anything else is fantasy and wishful thinking.[8]

We have referred to Stafford Beer and his anastomotic reticulum. In terms of the system’s governance of itself, the image is one of a vast number of inputs and a vast number of outputs with a mess of interconnection that cannot be definitively mapped. I understand that such an image does indeed have a physical/business analogue in the encrusted overgrowth of services on BT’s telecoms network and its switches. This is indeed governance and control but not in any simplistic or comprehensible way. Culturally we are vastly over-impressed with conscious thought.

Allow me another image from the business world. Many moons ago a large insurance company decided to rewrite it motorcycle insurance IT system. Five programmers for six months. Then it transpired that the new system would have to interface with the automated mail system and with the account system and with this and that until the “rational” estimate was fifty-odd programmers for some more months. The whole project grew exponentially until it was clear it could never complete. Think of the original Plan A as a good idea in the mind of a manager. Then think of the actual outcome and the vast waste of resources.

How it ends (badly)

As a general truth about life, if you fail to get your act together, someone else will get their act together first. And trying to entrench your current position will just make the situation more bloody when it comes to a crunch. Douglas Adams’ phrase was “first against the wall when the revolution comes” and we no longer think about reds under the bed. (Did we ever?)

Let’s sketch how someone who seems to be a manager may actually be a worker. Workers are in a situation where they produce some value, not nominal value that someone says they want but things that meet needs consistently. (Stay tuned: we will blog about value next week.) The very nature of value is that it changes from moment to moment: the forest changes, the world changes, and our niche in that change often shifts with it. Part of the point of complexity is that there are always new significant distinctions being made. Not to discern new distinctions is to be dead.

A family of workers producing value may or may not be aware of these shifts in the “environment”. And to meet those shifts, it may need a trivial refocusing or it may involve a repurposing of the activities that workers are engaged in. Becoming aware of approaching changes is real work, no doubt about it. As is developing new insights as to what is really needed. Creatively reconfiguring and repurposing existing valuable work can add considerable value, no doubt about it. Imagine yourself as a worker and suddenly, without changing what you do,[9] it is worth more to people than it was before: what’s not to like?

There is no iron law here. It may be that workers are the people who understand change first. Usually they then fail to communicate that to “managers” because firstly, they are pissed off and not engaged and secondly, no-one is listening anyway. It’s “above their pay grade” to have those thoughts — now there’s a symptom of a complementary pattern!

Our point here is that someone, somewhere, will discover where the new value in the changing situation is. And when they do, customers and their spend may see something closer to what they are looking for, with all the usual consequences. It’s not usually about price at this point, or about technology. It’s about customers discerning what they now think they wanted all along.[10]

A development path

In the last blog we considered how we are not who we think we are. Now we are making the same point about organisations. For instance, although people (and in particular, their managers) think that business organisations are there to make money, you will struggle to find an organisation that can tell you precisely how it makes the profits it does.[11]

Part of who we think we are is who we aspire to be. Many (most?) people have a viscerally held view of an organisation working harmoniously towards a goal, together. They talk about alignment[12] as though it is just obviously true that everyone must be making efforts in the same direction. Because of the nature of these beliefs, of course it makes no difference or impact to argue differently. But since when did development not involve struggle, mistakes, blind alleys, unwise enthusiasms, getting in with the wrong gang, false prophets, flawed parents, I could go on?

Just like the impossibility of understanding the connectivity in an anastomotic reticulum, we are holobionts whose constituent organisms have “purposes” that weave a web more complex than we can even imagine. Why would an organisation not have this same pattern? The way I teach the Viable Systems Model, each level of recursion in the model “repurposes” the work that it is based on, finds new sources of value in work that is done for other reasons, as discussed above.

Does it make sense to think of a development path for organisations where they reach a level of maturity in which they can sensibly consider reducing their reliance on the childish concept of management? My colleague Bob Marshall, actively explores this in the world of software development, which he points out (Several times. A day. All summer) is not about writing code. So a concrete version of the question would be “can an organisation get beyond the notion that the efficient writing of code makes it a great software company”.

When managers think about competition, they think about dinosaur corporations battling it out. The new behemoths of Silicon Valley, despite the hype, are the worst of them. But the fundamentals are elsewhere in the ecosystem, in discoveries of new ecosystemic roles and niches that complement many existing ones, thereby producing stable new value. Ecosystems depend of course on predators and key species which is why it sometimes looks like “first against the wall when the revolution comes”, but that is only a sideshow.

What needs to die is the notion that there is a function, management, and people, managers, whose job it is to organise, discipline, support, judge, explain. What I call the ‘Bahama solution’ is to persuade them to go on extended vocation for everyone’s benefit. The notion of management is a century out of date and persists only because some people get to describe their own performance in a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of a way.

The abject end, for people who think of themselves as managers but are not “on it”, is simply that the world moves underneath them in ways that catch them off balance. For all the entrenched privilege and entitlement and alpha male posturing and so on. For all the ease with which they can demonstrate how much they earned for their company, they are doomed and publicly doomed.

[1] Yes, ‘emerged’. Not imposed, nor restructured, nor hired. Truly useful managers are an emergent property of the work and the context/environment of the work. In VSM terms, think system 4.

[2] You’ll remember that solutions imply a problem that needs to be ‘solved’ with some sort of permanence. In Checkland’s soft systems methodology, there are no problems, only problematic situations. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every single problem in possession of a good consultant, must be in want of a solution. Pride and prejudice, indeed.

[3] I once worked with a senior manager who, so shocked at his own emotional reaction to inflicting a re-organisation (his first!) on his teams, promptly hardened his heart, forgot his previous sensibilities, and got himself made a director. Whereupon he no longer experienced the same difficulties and denies that the original happening had ever been troubling to him.

[4] Hmmm, interesting thought, that there might soon be less than nobody interested in doing what their work is supposed to be about. One of my former colleagues expressed his frustration that the average readership of a document in our company seemed to be less than one, including the author.

[5] As though they’re in the same cinema, but experiencing different movies on the same screen. Scott Adams calls this a sure sign of cognitive dissonance, that neither version of events is true.

[6] We’ve written previously about the futility of whistleblowing, where even (especially?) the official mechanisms to protect the worker who speaks against management are insufficient to protect anything real against the inevitable consequences.

[7] Smoking rooms used to be great levellers, at least as far as rubbish shoulders and overhearing contextual conversations went. Elevator pitches without the lift. And of course, the old-fashioned company cricket match (or softball, for the North Americans in the readership) in which the sport dominates any pre-existing power relationships. You don’t let the CEO steal first base on the basis of their position in the company hierarchy, nor do they let you pitch them easy balls.

[8] My experience is that managers want workers, me as a worker, to be individually responsible to him or her. They want to be able to call me out, but this belies the nature of the actual work process.

[9] Worth repeating: “without changing what you do”. This is repurposing, possibly at another level of recursion, not tweaks in the name of efficiency.

[10] Maybe the big change at the moment is switching from owning things to them simply being available. Cars for instance. Ben Thompson of Stratechery has a grand aggregation theory that follows the thread between suppliers, distributors, and consumers/users.

[11] And given the vast amounts of waste, it’s truly astonishing that there are profits at all. (Benjamin Graham would be proud of the margin of safety that must exist!) Having worked mostly in private sector, I was always horrified by the public sector narrative of private sector efficiency. How bad must public sector be, I wondered, if it looks to corporations to provide the answers…

[12] The ISACA CGEIT definition of alignment includes the word ‘harmony’, which has always struck me as being a stronger metaphor. Although I sometimes use the language of alignment, I think I always mean something like ‘with an awareness’.