How might we reshape management as an effective social technology?

Some of the world’s most recognized management thought leaders will come together again at the Global Peter Drucker Forum in Vienna, November 13–14, 2014. Leading practitioners, academics and journalists will discuss an important question: what does it take to reshape management as an effective social technology?
The conference abstract makes a strong case for why we should be asking that question:

It appears we have arrived at a turning point where either the world will embark on a route towards long-term growth and prosperity, or we will manage our way to economic decline. Thus the very coherence of our societies is at stake.

It goes on to observe:

…it is about changing the very nature of our organization and the way they function in a new world. Concepts and ideas of what should be done are abundant, but the main challenge remains how to achieve the better outcomes. The track record for transforming organizations, whether companies, non-profits, social security agencies, educational institutions or providers of government services, is extremely poor, to say the least.

And later:

…what can we do about this? What does it take to reshape Management as an effective social technology (as Drucker called it) for transforming our institutions and organizations?

Two suggestions

I have two suggestions to help answer the question: first, we must take management seriously. Second, and maybe less obvious: managers must think and act more like designers.

Taking management seriously

Would you buy a book that claims “Here’s Roger Federer’s 7 step approach to winning Wimbledon — and you can do it too!”? No? But why do you by “29 leadership secrets from Jack Welch”, “The Steve Jobs Way — iLeadership for a New Generation”?

Would you sign up for a 18–24 month course that claims to turn you into one of the world’s best tennis players, no previous experience required? No again? But why do invest time and money in getting an MBA and expect to be fit for the world’s most difficult management challenges afterwards?

The problem is not that there’s nothing to be learned from good books or an MBA education (although most MBA programs teach you a lot about business and almost nothing about management — but that’s a different story). The problem is our attitude: that reading a few books and getting an MBA can turn us into managers.

I believe it’s all based on a fundamental misunderstanding of management: that management is something you do besides your real job if you happen to have people reporting to you. Or that it’s a position, a title, a form of recognition, something that gives you authority. And of course: that management does not require a specific education, practice or even hard work. In short: we don’t take management seriously.

The truth, though, is that management is hard. Very hard. In Peter Drucker’s words, management is “the organ of society specifically charged with making resources productive, ie, with the responsibility of organised economic advance”. Managers make organisations function, enabling the most productive use of resources, in the pursuit of a noble goal: to create value for customers and even society at large.

Take a moment to think about what this means. What would you say is required for an organisation to function, make productive use of resources and create value for customers?

You might come up with things like developing and executing strategy effectively, designing an organisation that let’s people thrive, shaping a positive corporate culture, overcoming silos and politics, allocating resources effectively, innovating successfully, developing strong, cohesive teams, communicating effectively, hiring and firing the right people — and many, many more.

And remember that management is a practice — you actually have to do all this! So the next and probably more interesting question is: how? How does a manager do it?

Isn’t that reason enough to take management seriously? To stop pretending that anyone can do it with a few days of training in giving feedback, understanding their Myers-Briggs and solving a few case studies?

Let’s accept that management is its own proper discipline. One with it’s own proper body of knowledge while also heavily drawing on other social sciences. One that can (and must) be learned. One that’s not for everyone. And one that’s not a part-time job.

Managers who think and act like designers

But let’s get back to the question of how. I believe that design can help us find many good answers.

Management is heavily contextual: what works in context A may not work in context B. Just think of the many successful managers who miserably fail when they change companies. Management depends on culture, the history of the organization, its size and complexity, the business it is in, whether it’s a turnaround or a growth company. And of course it depends on its people.

If management needs to work for people, then it needs to be designed for people.

So how do we design management for people? It starts with the first step in the design process: gaining a deep understanding of people’s needs. Great designers ask lots of questions to this end. Questions starting with why are particularly powerful.

Yet many organisations and their leaders are so overwhelmed by the what that they forget to ask why more often: Why do we spend our time the way we do? Why do we all feel we have too many meetings? Why do we need to grow revenue? Why does marketing not to get along with operations? Why are people not collaborating more? Why are we doing this project? Why do we all loathe the annual budgeting process? Why…?

Before they get to the how, Great managers ask why a lot. The questions are driven by their most fundamental objective: to improve the functioning of their organizations. And they are targeted at gaining a deep understanding of the underlying human needs of its people.

Only when you understand those needs can you begin to focus your attention on how best to satisfy them in your specific context. Chances are, though, that even if your management toolbox is very large and filled with years of experience, you won’t find many tools that fit your context right out of the box.

That’s where the tools and mindset of the designer come in again. They enable and encourage you to customize existing management tools — or create entirely new ones — to address your toughest management challenge in a way that works. Because they are designed for your specific challenges in your specific context.

Great managers thus understand that an important part of their job is to design a management model that fits their organization and their people. They also understand that the design is never finished. It needs constant work to keep up with the changing requirements of the outside world and the organization’s own evolution.

The great transformation can be achieved

I’m optimistic that the great transformation as envisioned by Richard Straub, the founder of the Global Peter Drucker Forum, can be achieved. But it indeed requires that we reshape management as an effective social technology.

Taking management seriously and enriching the practicing manager’s toolbox with that of the designer could help set the train in motion. I look very much forward to discussing these and learning about other ideas next week in Vienna.

To conclude with Peter Drucker:

The entire free world has an immense stake in the competence, skill and responsibility of management.

Let’s live up to the challenge!

This essay was first published at on November 5, 2014.