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 With their emails and meetings, together with outdated reporting and approval systems, managers are part of a wider hierarchical culture that is at odds with the digital age.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

We need to encourage organisations to seek risk – and forgive failure

“I’ve focused on the idea of failure being the engine for innovation. Not being afraid of failure but seeing it as a learning opportunity, and the value of getting out into the world and testing things earlier rather than later.” – Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots, Google X

Risk management flow chart on a blackboard

Risk is still a toxic word across much of the public sector.

It’s often still seen as something to avoid at all costs rather than embrace. In less complicated times it was the right thing to do – sweep through organisations and make sure everyone knew the dangers.

Everyone risk assessed each other and every activity. We told people to follow the rules whatever the situation. Customer experience , if such a thing even existed, was standardised rather than personalised.

But we don’t live in those times anymore. We live in momentous times.  Across the public and social sectors problems aren’t slowing down – they’re picking up.

Taking considered risks has to become part of our everyday roles. And with risk inevitably comes failure.

Innovation only thrives in a forgiving organisation. And if failure is the engine for innovation , our challenge is to make our organisations more forgiving.

When I initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted , but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

It was to detoxify risk.

To promote learning from failure.

To make our organisations more forgiving we need cultures that promote well managed risk and bravery. So what are the things that are preventing more forgiving cultures?

Risk as an inhibitor of innovation

Traditionally we have not being good at focussing risk management on the right areas. Significant amounts of time are spent auditing areas that are highly unlikely to ever cause major reputational damage. This can be a huge inhibitor of potential innovation. Most policies don’t prevent your company’s downfall – they just stop colleagues from doing the right thing for the customer. This graphic from a recent HBR study shows auditors are simply looking in the wrong places.

Risk

Policies don’t bring organisations down. Toxic cultures do.

But cultures are rarely audited. It’s easier to tick boxes.

How does your organisation actively seek out risk? Only 20% of strategy officers describe their organisation as risk seeking. We need to transform risk management from being about “stopping doing things” to being about “starting doing different things” within a well managed framework.

Making things ‘work’ that just don’t

Hardly anything ‘fails’ in the social sector.  We are largely taxpayer funded – to admit wasting resources would be foolish, surely?

Plus people genuinely care and want to help the less fortunate. That’s a great thing. But these can also be the undoing of many projects and pilots. We want things to work so badly our emotions get in the way. We often fail to scrutinise well intentioned initiatives and don’t equip colleagues with the nuclear option when it looks like things are going wrong.

At Bromford , we are trying to instill a culture of honesty and openness. If you think our latest initiative is crap and you wouldn’t spend your own money on it – it’s pretty likely the customer will think the same.

Not all ideas are created equal – some things are just not meant to be. Let’s stop doing them and use our resources to make greater impact elsewhere.

Lack of transparency killing trust

In the social era many of our organisations are in the difficult transition of becoming human again. We still get locked into broadcasting rather than meaningful conversations in public. That means starting owning up to mistakes and admitting we sometimes fail to learn from them. We are human. We mess up more often than we care to admit because we fear the consequences. 

So with this new transparency has to come forgiveness from the customer. If organisations are to admit failure there has to be a maturing of public debate. Social media has brought us many wonderful things but it has also introduced public shaming by the mob, trolling , and a serious lack of empathy. Think before you publicly criticise someone’s failed initiative. When you do it you create a little more fear in organisations. And somewhere a bit of innovation dies.

Despite this, organisations must push themselves ever further towards transparency. What have you funded that hasn’t worked? In the new transparency you may as well wash your dirty linen in public – it’ll save a freedom of information request in the future.

  • We need to establish a new relationship with the public where humility and failure is seen as a positive attribute rather than a weakness. 
  • We need to demonstrate that we are getting better at learning from failure, not repeating it.
  • We don’t need to celebrate failure – but we do need to become more comfortable with it. It’s normal. 

To successfully tackle the huge problems we face we need to experiment more. Many of those experiments just won’t work.

If we want to see radical improvement in our services we’ll need to be forgiven by our organisations.

And we’ll need to be more forgiving of each other too. 

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