Let the Managers Go

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Post by: Sigurd Rinde

Fire the managers and purge the language of the term “management”. Long live leaders and let everybody manage themselves.

Most people manage themselves with great success: they manage to get out of bed in the morning, they manage to get dressed, they manage to get to the office on time.

Then, at the office, they meet the “manager” that will manage them until end of the day. That’s at best a paradox, at worst a devastating error.

Highly efficient manager to the left

But is it at all possible to do without managers? Let’s check reality:

Take a look at this aptly titled article in Harvard Business Review; “First let’s fire all the managers”. In that you will find the story of Morning Star, a highly successful tomato processor with 60% of the US market and double digit growth in a one percent growth market. They have 600 full time employees and 2000 seasonal, and not a single manager. 

Then read Joel Spolsky’s post at AVC and see how he turns it all upside down, making the managers into supporters instead, and, very deftly, suggests that the term “manage” should be replaced with “administrate”.

Lastly, if you read some of the Steve Jobs biographies and articles you might notice something peculiar: when Jobs came back in 1997 the managers to employees ratio was about the usual 11%, then Jobs changed the structure until they were down to about 70 VPs, or less than a 1% manager ratio. Personally, as I like Apple, I hope the new leadership will not follow Adam Lashinky’s recommendations in his book “Inside Apple” to rebuild a classic management structure again.

Ah, almost forgot Open Source: A pretty impressive product development story, and that without a “manager” in sight. 

In sum, it seems that, in some cases at least, that a “lack” of managers is not only possible, but in fact might be a trait of some of the most successful.

Still, the question remains; why would it be worth getting rid of management? 

There are three good reasons, three negatives to shed:

  1. The management tax
  2. The killjoy effect
  3. The ineffectiveness

1. As a rule of thumb you need one manager per ten employees, invented 2000 years ago by the Roman army (remember dekurions and centurions?). But with 10 managers you need another manager to manage the managers and so forth. All in all about 11% managers in a “normal” Roman army setup as most corporations have. Assume that the average manager is paid 3 times the average employee and you have 27% of total payroll cost as a “management tax”.

But that’s only the direct cost, managers require extra administration and support, so much of the administrative services should be added to the “management tax”. And then, the indirect cost that we so well know: When you’re in a coding run or in the midsts of creating a big presentation and your managers pops by and tells you to “drop this and do that” or simply asks for an update, all solidly counterproductive and an indirect “management tax” as well.

2. We’re all driven by certain rewards, and most agree that there are three intrinsic rewards that counts: Autonomy, Purpose and Mastery.

What happens when you’re assigned a task, or rather “told” to do a task? First of all autonomy goes down the drain, and mastery certainly gets shot when your flow is rudely interrupted. And unless the task delivery was well supported by context and meaningful purpose beyond the needs of the manager, purpose becomes iffy too. 

In short, the dual responsibilities of a “manager”; leadership and managing, are in fact two counter forces that should never be handled by the same person: While leadership is all about nurturing those three intrinsic rewards, any “management act” will ruin that important nurturing.

3. What is management really? What’s its purpose? Think: what do a manager do?

He/she distributes tasks, delegates work, makes decisions when no others are willing or when centralised decision making makes sense.

It’s all about framing the organisational work; channel the workflow towards stated goals within given constraints like time and resource use.

So here we are, running all our value creation workflows in a highly manual fashion in the same way our forebears did it thousands of years ago, albeit slightly faster thanks to IT that moved report writing from quills and scrolls to keyboard and screens and made boss pestering instant by email and message streams. Same shit, new wrapping.

Outside the corporate world, in places with fewer habits and assumed truths, IT has shown way more promise: we can communicate and collaborate with people all over the world in a gazillion ways, we have the “cloud”, we have tablets and smartphones, we have all kinds of technological power. But in the corporate world we still run workflows using doughnuts and stern looks. That’s silly. And amazingly ineffective.

What to do?

Be inspired by Rufer, Spolsky and Jobs, but for the alternative framework (Rufer’s seems rather cumbersome if you study it) make a request to your enterprise software vendor as follows:

  • He should change focus from efficiency to effectiveness, from “how we do things” to “what things we do”, from “making the old way faster” to “replace the old way”.
  • He should without delay create systems that can framework and run workflows even of the Barely Repeatable kind. 
  • Note that it’s about “flows”, i.e. processes, so tell them not to come dragging with some process-less collaboration solution or social-whatever that they lifted from the consumer market, that won’t wash.

With eventually an alternative workflow framework in place, like a riverbed for water flow, it would be time to burn those “manager” hats and let the ex-managers focus on real value-add and proper leadership.

[Disclosure: The author is in fact engaged in creating such an alternative work framework]

Original Post: http://blog.thingamy.com/sigs_blog/2012/02/let-the-managers-go.html