Management, Simple and Wrong – Semantics, Systems, and Self-Correction

Villain Caricature

Simple responses to complex situations are both seductive and dangerous. The difficulty in juggling lots of variables tempts us to employ abstraction so as to avoid being overwhelmed. Abraham Maslow’s observation, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”, applies. Some things (e.g. landmines) react badly to being treated as if they were nails. Having more tools in the box may help avoid problems.

This isn’t the post I had in mind to write next, but it’s one that came about by accident (via a multi-day mass participant Tweet-storm, with my participation beginning here). I had planned an Organizations as Systems post re: multiple players in multiple contexts (competing, and possibly conflicting goals and motivations) and I stumbled into a conversation that should provide a nice preamble to that post which should follow this one.

Before I dive in, two quick notes:

  • Rather than try to summarize the entire conversation, I’m going to lay out what I brought to and took from it. There are far too many tweets and, as of this writing, I can’t be sure the conversation has concluded.
  • My thanks to everyone involved, whether named or not. This kind of civil, if contentious, dialog is much appreciated. When ideas rub together, it can produce irritation, but sometimes they also get polished.

Management is one of those things that, like landmines, tends to react badly to the hammer of simplistic thought. We can see this in managers who apply (or misapply) theories of management, particularly ones like scientific management (AKA Taylorism) to contexts where it is extremely inappropriate and counterproductive. Whether there really exists a context where Taylorism is actually appropriate or productive is a question for another day. We also see the hammer in reactions to abuses that dismiss all value of management out of hand. While the reaction is understandable, that doesn’t make it credible. The vicious circle just becomes more vicious; heat is generated but without corresponding light.

One thing that’s necessary to pin down is what we mean by the term “management”. Are we talking about a concept (“…the administration of an organization…”)? Are we talking about the job/profession? Perhaps the discipline (branch of knowledge) or academic discipline (field of study) is what we’re talking about. We could be talking about a theory management, or we could be talking about management practices, either individually or grouped into systems of management. Knowing specifically what’s being referred to is critical for evaluating statements. A very valid criticism of a specific theory or system (e.g. Taylorism) will likely fall apart when applied to the concept as a whole due to the fact that the concept is far broader and contrary examples are easily found.

Another issue relates to intent. Few would argue the universal detriment of poor management practices. Extracting the maximum possible effort from your employees is unlikely to result in the generation of the most value in the context of knowledge work. These practices are the very antithesis of fitness for purpose in that they do not materially benefit the organization and they alienate employees (which is yet another hit to the organization where the product is knowledge work). And yet, there are still managers that manage in that very manner. Are they, each and every one, evil? A simplistic answer, hard against either end of the spectrum, is almost surely going to be wrong. That being said, in my experience the distribution is skewed more towards the “no” side than not (just as I’ve found people who only perform when driven to it to be a very small minority).

Why would someone who wants to do their job well and in an ethical manner resort to practices that are harmful to all parties? With sadism eliminated as a motivation (there just aren’t enough in the population to account for all the positions to be filled), the far more plausible answer would be culture, tradition, and/or lack of knowledge regarding alternatives. In short, when the outcome of a system doesn’t match the intent, there’s a bug in the system.

The disconnect between leadership and management is also a problem. Leadership, admittedly, is a concept distinct from management. It makes sense that not every leader needs to be a manager. The extent to which we as a society tolerate management absent leadership, however, is shocking and part of the problem. Consider a tweet from Esther Derby:

I would argue that steering and enabling can be considered leadership qualities as much as management activities. There’s a place for supervision and compliance, however knowing how to achieve results without forcing the issue is, in my opinion, an extremely useful skill. This is not manipulation, rather a matter of understanding goals and how to achieve them intelligently. It’s a matter of understanding how to resolve potential conflicts between the goals and motivations of an organization, groups, and individuals and adapting the system so that the outcomes more closely track the intent. The alternative is allowing the system to degenerate into a web of perverse incentives that increase the gap between intent and outcome. This gap may benefit some individuals, but at the cost to other individuals and the organization as a whole.

Medicine is something that has been through a number of changes, large and small, by finding a way to adapt. While the concept of medicine (diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of disease and injury) has remained constant over time, the practices and theories have evolved greatly. The discipline itself has evolved so that not only does it adapt to change, but that it adapts in as optimal a manner as possible. In short, it has developed a culture of learning.

Understanding organizations from a systems standpoint means recognizing the need for sensing the fit between the system and its contexts (learning) and then steering to correct any mismatches (management). Simplistic approaches to management (particularly relatively static ones that have little save tradition to recommend them) can only lead to a widening gap between the intended outcome and actual results. At some point, this gap becomes wide enough to swallow the organization.

[Villain Carricature by J.J. via Wikimedia Commons.]