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 

 

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

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