Is the Era of Management Really Over?
No more managers? It’s too good to be true! Oh, wait. I am a manager. I’d better find out what’s going on! So I clicked.
The article was more reasonable and less panic-inducing (or joy-inducing, depending on your point of view) than the clickbait title.
What Is a Manager?
“…Perhaps it is time we redefine the term ‘manager’,” posits Andrew Chakhoyan. Fair enough, but with administrators, consultants, facilitators, coaches, team leaders, and so on, do we really need to redefine an existing term? Although the term “manage” can be interpreted broadly, the term “manager” is defined pretty narrowly by the Oxford English Dictionary:
“A person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff.”
Ah, control. People love control. If we have money we can control our future. If we have health we can control our bodies. If we are popular we can control others. But not really. We can do our best to affect outcomes and we can make a difference, but a lot of life and even business comes down to being in the right place at the right time.
If we give up managers, are we giving up control, or just giving up the illusion?
And what are managers doing right now, if control is an illusion? I can think of a few people that would love to know.
My answer lies in the second half of the disjunct: “administering”. Administering is the act of “Manag[ing] and be[ing] responsible for the running of (a business, organization, etc.)” (also Oxford). Being responsible. Taking the buck and stopping it. Making decisions and owning them.
A good manager facilitates good decisions and takes responsibility for solving problems when things go south.
It doesn’t matter whether you are dealing with chaos or a steady state. Taking responsibility and making wise decisions is key to excellent management.
So Do We Need Managers or Not?
Machines can provide us with data and information. In simple situations such as physical events like braking for a physical object, we might even be willing to cede decisions to machines.
But data on the extreme complexity of social situations, the data points for which we are just learning to collect, is not always available to our most powerful machines. It is, however, available to the human brain. And a keen manager uses these social data (really, composites of data points on trillions of organisms as they work together) to prepare probabilistic evaluations of the feasibility of different business decisions.
An excellent manager knows how to pass on processed information to the team, when to hold back, and when to let loose the hounds to attack a project, budget be damned.
In other words: Management Is Dead, Long Live Management.
Does It Scale?
Chakhoyan calls out “tech unicorns” as those who will drive non-hierarchical models “in a world of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity)”. We don’t have to think of ourselves as unicorns, though. There is nothing special about taking a decentralized approach.
What we do in tech—using applications to harness the energy of our amazingly talented pool of knowledge workers—anybody can do, with the right resources. All of us, from health care professionals to managers of supply chains to institutions of higher ed, are living in this volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex world.
The question is not whether you should use data to drive decisions in an uncertain world, but how.
Those of you who believe there is nothing new under the sun will appreciate this axiom from Sun Tzu:
“Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but to begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more.” (Art of War, ch. 5, point 6).
Cool side note: Sun Tzu’s work that is usually translated as The Art of War is more accurately translated as ”Master Sun’s Martial Arts”, which explains why many of the points are so generally applicable beyond the literal battlefield.
For those of you who love line charts and Venn diagrams (and who doesn’t?), here is Jessica Hagy breaking down Sun Tzu’s Chapter 5 on Energy for Forbes.
Sun Tzu’s definition of strategy as positioning energy and decision suggests that strategy, as we know it, is not dead. Strategy is alive and is ready to flow through the new tools we have to create flexible channels of information that are responsive to the most chaotic environment.
And this is where Chakhoyan is clearly on point. He writes, “To lead a project is not to assign tasks and monitor performance, but to empower, to define the broader context, and to organically link the work of one team with the rest of the business… Curating the context in which high performers can excel – rather than attempting to manage them – is the key to unleashing their full potential.”
Go With the Flow
Many of us know the desire to control our futures, filling agendas and buying calendar integration apps. We swing between an Apollonian restraint and our Dionysian urge to just make it happen and curse the plan. Organizations and whole societies can also have their moments. One generation organizes efficiency and pushes conformity, while the next rebels and insists we can’t have a future without breaking the rules that are holding us back.
But the real management solution is, of course, in the middle.
Organizing the flow of information, or “curating context” as Chakhoyan puts it, allows us to organize key pivot points to respond to changes in the environment.
Responsible organizations will find ways to create channels for employees to share information with each other. Software like Slack and Teams already exists for this, and we use a multitude of different means within Decisive Data.
Leadership needs access to data and information, aggregated data points and the ability to re-arrange data to create new insights on the spot. One way Decisive Data solves this is as a partner with Snowflake computing to provide clients with a flexible data warehouse so that they are ready to derive timely insights from their operational data in the midst of a complex and changing business environment.
And employees and leaders need to listen. There’s no software for this.
You have to be quiet and be ready to hear that things aren’t working as expected, to take responsibility, and move forward.
That’s just hard. It’s what managers are there for.
Author: Elizabeth Kronoff, Project Manager
Posted by Elizabeth Kronoff