What If We Replaced All Our Managers With Robots? 

Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done

Peter Drucker

Management is the greatest inefficiency in any organisation.

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Gary Hamel , but his explanation of how management ‘spreads’ is always helpful.

Typically a small organisation might start off simply – one manager and 10 employees. 

But as it grows it will often keep this ratio and sometimes reduce it. So an organisation with 100,000 employees will have at least 11,111 managers. Because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers.

And that’s before you go near management related functions whose entire function is , well , management.

Most of our organisations are focused on growth rather than remaining small and simple. More people inevitably means your coordination and communication problems magnify, the management hierarchy multiplies, and things get more complex.

Research shows that every time the size of a city doubles, innovation or productivity increases. However, exactly the opposite happens with organisations. When companies get bigger, innovation or productivity per employee generally goes down.

This is why companies which grow quickly get into trouble. A fast-growing company can go from 20 to 400 people without changing anything about how they work. What works in an organisation of 200 people simply doesn’t in an organisation of 2000.

Globally, our employees crave more autonomy and less bureaucracy. However, there is currently a gap between wanting autonomy and flexibility, and getting workplace autonomy and flexibility.

And the reason it’s difficult is this: it’s impossible to dismantle bureaucracy without redistributing authority. Hierarchical and status-obsessed cultures necessarily militate against relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Most of our organisations don’t redistribute authority, they accumulate it.

So what if we replaced all the managers with robots? 

As Simon Penny writes for Bromford Lab, at the moment we’re either 100% human led or just starting to explore the possibilities of having machines support decision making.

Simon points out that humans are particularly bad at making decisions. Our decisions are largely emotional and often illogical, which can lead to inequity, data bias and bad outcomes. Having a machine help us make decisions more efficiently actually makes a lot of sense. Who says they wouldn’t be better than managers?.

The Mystery of Miserable Employees

In an article for the New York Times, Neil Irwin explains how a team at Microsoft used data rather than managers to figure out why a business unit had such poor work life balance. The issue was that their managers were clogging their schedules with overcrowded meetings, reducing available hours for tasks that rewarded more focused concentration. Rather than leaving it to managers to solve the problem the team deployed a Microsoft Office feature called MyAnalytics which allows users to receive nudges when their actions don’t line up with their stated goals. A bot notifies you about how much focused time you had, or how many hours you were on email.

Just like wellbeing trackers like Fitbit, rather than doctors, are nudging people to improve the quality of their sleep, we’ll see algorithms, rather than managers, nudging us to be more productive at work.

To keep teams productive and happy, managers need to master the basics: don’t overwork or expect others to; hold frequent 1:1s; make cross-functional connections; and of course, keep meetings on time and inclusive. All tasks perfectly suited to a robot.

We Are All Managers Now

Like it or not we are headed in a direction of either performing human focused work (social, health workers, coaches) or performing deep non-routine knowledge work. All other tasks will be automated at some time in the near future.

It will happen slowly:

  • Things like Robotic Process Automation will begin to undertake the systematic and behind-the scenes jobs
  • AI will complement this software to add thought, judgement and intelligence
  • You’ll be told by a bot what the optimally productive length of the workday is for you.  You’ll be advised whether it makes sense to focus on deep contact with a few customers or much looser relationships with a wider community
  • Monitoring tasks (hours worked, productivity) will be democratised and we’ll be self managing using nudges and prompts – developing the interpretive skills to understand what data is telling us.

The automation of these routine tasks will allow people to focus on ideas, innovation and higher-value work.

Management has been responsible for a lot of disengagement with the workplace. This multi-tiered management model piles inefficiency upon inefficiency. Decision making slows. People become less empowered.

Robots will replace most managers before they replace front-line workers. But it won’t happen overnight and won’t even feel uncomfortable.

If we design it sensibly and ethically, the organisation where you are your own boss could be less cumbersome and costly – leading to a much happier and productive world of work.


 

 

Image by Jin Kim from Pixabay 

 

How Automation Helps Us Solve The Problems That Matter

“One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” – Elbert Hubbard

bromford-design-principles-reworked-3-1

Automation gets a bad rap.

The original draft of our design principles stated “Automate everything that can be automated”. People flinched – it was seen as too harsh.

Mention automation and people make a mental jump to a transactional, robotic service devoid of warmth and humanity.

‘Going digital’ is often seen only as a move to cut costs – punishing customers with a lesser service.

It shouldn’t be that way.

Successful automation – and digital transformation –  is about freeing people up to tackle the problems they don’t normally get the time to solve.

If you’ve ever been to an Apple Store you’ll have seen this in action. Apple employ a lot of people in their in-store experience – about three or four times the number employed in a typical retail outlet.

Every employee is trained to walk a customer through five steps aimed at delivering a unique experience:

A: Approach customers with a personalised, warm welcome

P: Probe politely to understand the customer’s needs

P: Present a solution for the customer to take home today

L: Listen for and resolve issues or concerns

E: End with a farewell and an invitation to return

Their formula is simple – build relationships = sell more products.

Of course Apple can only afford to do this because of their profit – and their ceaseless focus on automating anything that gets in the way of customer experience.

We’ve been running design sessions across the whole organisation since last October. Embedding our new principles and taking people out of the here and now to imagine a 2.0 version of how we work.

One of the things that’s been most heartening is people’s honesty about the challenges of working within complex systems. One colleague explained how a team had to perform a manual task 20,000 times every year.

The creativity and sheer determination employed to resolve the problem was incredible. However, the problem didn’t need to exist. It’s capable of redesign and automation.

Across the social sector we have a lot of problems and a lot of people.

50% of day-to-day spend in the public sector is on employees.

37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world.

Only 18% of people say the jobs they spend most of their lives doing are “very fulfilling”.

An awful lot of people are doing meaningless jobs.

That speaks of poor leadership and a wholesale failure to embrace technology and new ways of working.

Imagine if we harvested all our creativity and determination and unleashed it on the problems worth solving?

At Bromford we are attempting to follow the Apple model. In our case it means putting people where the problems and the opportunities are – right in the centre of the community.  In an age where people are withdrawing personalised services we are pushing them to the fore – boosting the ratio of people to customers.

Digital transformation is absolutely not about designing out people. It’s about designing out the ordinary and reserving people for the extraordinary.

Indeed , the paradox of automation says that the more efficient the automated system, the more crucial the human contribution. People are less involved, but their involvement becomes more critical.

Automation gets a bad rap, but it shouldn’t.

It makes us all much more important, not less.

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