The way most managers do their job is rather dull. It all begins with the very basic assumptions that managers have about their job. Most managers frame their job as being three things:
- to lead some people
- to make most decisions
- to balance the organizational needs of performance with the needs of the ones performing
Basically, they think they are in charge. Which is perfectly right, only that they picture themselves to be in charge of the wrong things:
The Managerial Fallacy
Managers usually think of themselves as being in charge of a performance mission …but they are really in charge of getting people to do things.
This difference between these two frames is far from being subtle. Being on a performance missions triggers you to think in terms of the mission, to dissect it into its component parts, to reassemble it into a better organizational machine, and to place the workers to operate that machine. It triggers a rational process of solving a performance problem. This is exactly the thing we have been trained for at school and at universities. This way of working feels natural and comes easily to us. The frame is: “I am in charge of running this”. But it is wrong.
Analytical analysis is an optimal method to solve a mathematical equation, a physical, mechanical or most problem in natural sciences. Given sufficient information, you can rely on the stable causality of the natural laws to come up with an optimal solution. But an analytical approach does not work in social sciences. Here you never have all information, as the information does not lend itself to being measured well. Plus causalities are always hidden and unstable. You can’t predict individual behavior.
In such a much less predictable, social environment the best method to proceed is not an analytical one. It is an empirical one. You need to try things to find out the best way of doing things instead of assuming that you found the optimal solution. In social systems there is no thing as an optimal solution, there are only solutions that work better at a certain point in time. People and organizations are volatile. The whole business environment is more and more volatile in this digital age. A stable optimum needs to be replaced by neverending tinkering to always try to come up with a better solution.
Therefore the much superior frame is: “I am in charge of getting people to do things.”
This frame prompts a manager to:
- tinker for a better solution, continuously
- to lead people in such a matter so that they can do things better
- to consider oneself as a manager of a socio-technical system, the performing organization, not of a mechanical device with measurable in and outputs
- to understand the work of a manager as a craft. A craft that is to be perfected over time, through tinkering, try, error and learning
After all, management (or leadership) is about this: Getting people to do things. It is not primarily a problem to be solved by the manager. It is not constantly firing a barrage of orders or motivational messages, as this would be tiring and therefore ineffective. But it is about creating an environment where people do those things that need to be done because they want those things to be done.
That environment is built from of Management Practices which are often unlike the ones we commonly take for granted. Here is a comparison.
Management practices are the building blocks of the craft of management. There are hundreds or even thousands of management practices available. Many of those practices have their origins in the Agile or Lean Movements. But the goal is not to adopt as many advanced practices as possible. First, these are not necessarily better than existing ones in the context of a specific organizational challenge. Second, adopting too many practices means creating a highly regulated work environment. This is contra productive. The target is to create an environment where people do those things that should be done because they want to do those things. Keep it simple – allow freedom.
The Full Stack Manager
Let’s summarize this modern understanding of a more clever way to manage. A manager is:
- the builder of environments
- the provider of freedom
- the one who connects the performance missions of an organization to the calling of the individual
- the one who experiments with different management practices in order to find ever better ways to engage groups of people
If you continue on this line of thinking, an optimal scenario to run a sociotechnical system may be to even delegate designing, building and running this system more and more to its component parts, i.e. the people doing the work. By going down that path you end up with a self-managed organization, that has left behind the hierarchical way most organizations are organized.
While this is attractive to more and more companies – even parts of the likes of Daimler, Porsche, Unilever, and Michelin – not to talk of AirBnB, Netflix, Haier etc. – this is not a natural given end state. Hierarchy, as an easily understood, time-proven coordination mechanism has its merits.
Nobody can say where the optimum is for your organization. Nobody can say which management practices are best for your organization. But you can find it out: Tinker, you Craftsman!
A Master Craftsman in the trade of Management is what I would call a Full Stack Manager. One who knows how to run meetings, to know how to create transparency, to know how to make decisions, to know how to create a feedback and learning-rich environment etc.
So, why are managers (so often) dumb?
There are a number of explanations:
- Peter principle: Everyone is prompted to her or his level of incompetence. Only the competent get promoted. But their career stalls when they are incompetent. This leaves most managers incompetent. This logical argument is a heuristic, that is hard to prove or to disprove.
- Principle-Agent Problem: Managers may appear to act incompetent, but they really have their own agenda. This agenda might entail risk minimization (or – less often -risk-taking), personal enrichment or aggrandizement, or just having a good time. They should be taking care of the organization, though. Alas, the amount of information that the principal (a superior or shareholders) is always less than the information the agent (the manager) has.
- Getting things done is more important than doing things great: Success in business is a function of doing the right things on a strategic level, good execution and a good dose of luck. It’s not fully correlated with good management practices. In fact, there are studies that suggest that just 10% of a companies performance is related to good management practices.In other words: You do not necessarily need good management to succeed. Survival is mandatory, performance is optional.
- Human Nature: Power corrupts. We tend to warm ourselves in the shine of it, making us blind to things going bad and feeling entitled to the status quo.
All of this is true and there is not much we can do about it.
But what we can do to decrease our dumbness as managers is to reframe management from “a solver of performance equations” to a “Gardner of socio-technical performance systems”.
Or to say it in simpler terms: From a Scientific Manager to a Gardner of Sociotops.
Let me know what you think.
I am such a sucker for recency bias. So here is what I read last and which therefore didn’t fail to influence this post:
- Nissam Taleb, “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile“. Both great book if you want to learn the differences between physical and social systems
- Phil Rosenzweig, “The Halo Effect“. If you want to know why 95% management literature are stories, but not science, read this. The bad thing is, you will be deeply depressed. The good thing is, re-read this article to cheer-up: Experimentation is the way to go, not dogma.
- The other books I happened to rate highly on the Sources page
Other than this have a look at
- this Blogs Resources page
- 76 Agile Workouts & A Fish – for an overview of management practices
- 4 Steps to Release the Full Potential of Organizations – for my take on the continuum between hierarchical and self-managed organizations