Why Do We Still Need Managers?

“Management is not only dysfunctional, Management is also destructive” – Companies Without Managers

Last week we held the first of the Bromford  #inspiremelab sessions – where colleagues curated and then discussed provocations around the future of how we work.

We covered off a range of subjects but the conversation kept coming back to that opening quote and the accompanying podcast. All about the importance of autonomy and devolved decision making.

Outside of work, people make all sorts of huge decisions about their lives. They take out mortgages, they make babies, they support ageing relatives and cope with bereavement. Inside of work though we often don’t give them the authority to spend £100 to resolve a simple problem.

It’s easy to blame managers for this. With their emails and meetings, together with outdated reporting and approval systems, managers are part of a wider hierarchical culture that is at odds with the digital age.

Management is the greatest inefficiency in any organisation.

Six years ago Gary Hamel wrote a hugely influential piece called First, Let’s Fire All the Managers.

It outlined the huge inefficiency tax that management layers over an organisation:

As an organisation grows you need more managers, so the costs of management rise in both absolute and relative terms.

Unchecked hierarchy increases the risk of large, calamitous decisions. As decisions get bigger, the ranks of those able to challenge the decision maker get smaller.

A multitiered management structure means more approval layers and slower response.

As you narrow an individual’s scope of authority,  you shrink the incentive to dream, imagine, and contribute.

The power to kill or modify a new idea is often vested in a single person, whose parochial interests may skew decisions.

Management is unnatural. For thousands of years most adults owned their own community businesses and made decisions through bartering and mutual agreement. Managers were just an invention for the Industrial Age factory system.

Certainly as part of work I’m doing around organisational redesign – I just can’t see a future for managers in a networked age.

This is a very ‘Big If’ but go with me for a moment:

If an organisation gets its strategy right and establishes strong values and principles

And

It embeds those principles in effective automated processes

And

It empowers people to come together and solve problems where they do arise

And

It trusts colleagues to ‘do the right thing’ in situations where they need a bespoke outcome

Then

You don’t need managers

Managers are waste.

Although there are organisations who are saying goodbye to the boss it strikes me that if we get this right we perhaps don’t need to adopt holacracy or another formal system of ‘unmanagement’.

If we stick to the principle that people closest to the work know best how to do it.

And if we design our organisations around that principle.

Management disappears. 

Perhaps the most heartening quote from our Lab session came from a new Neighbourhood Coach:

“I can work where I like , when I like and I’m treated like a grown-up”.

In that future , where top down driven targets, change programmes and efficiency drives are giving way to self-directed work, the idea of employing someone just to authorise annual leave seems unlikely.

Bromford, like most social organisations are all about achieving impact in communities. It stands to reason that impact is not best achieved from a central head office. Power and decision making has to be devolved.

That said we recognised there are huge challenges to achieving that vision and #inspiremelab left me with some questions we need to answer.

  • Is our attitude to risk constraining the talent of colleagues?
  • How far would we really dare to go in devolving responsibility?
  • Would we consider reserving 20% of colleagues time just for solving problems and exploring opportunities?

Our overall thoughts were the future of work was less about technology and more about creating the space for those closest to the problem to take some risks.

That means more leadership certainly.

More coaching, for sure.

More management?

Never.


Image Credit: Startup Market

  1. Heidi De Wolf June 25, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    The organisation cannot set its own strategy. A team people can. How this team is designed/organised can never be a one-size-fits-all circumstances. Teams need different energies to function. It needs visionary, cooperative, facilitative, motivational and discipline energies which lead at different times and in different contexts. These are not static positions necessarily, but they are the diverse roles/strengths which teams need to have to be a well-functioning team.

    Reply

    1. Thanks Heidi – I think I meant gets its strategy aligned. Strategy being sum of the actions a company intends to take to achieve goals. And yes – that means the sum of the diverse teams and thought processes!

      Reply

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