April 20, 2014

Managing the complex organization

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A great read popped up over at inc.com this week.  The author, Ilyz Pozin, is a successful entrepreneur with several successful companies under his belt.  The article, entitled, “Want Happier Employees? Get Rid of the Bosses” describes his foray into the world of innovative management practices.  Along the way, he learns something about mentoring vs. directing, allowing teams to self-manage, the elimination of hierarchies based on titles, eliminating worry over salaries and incomes, and rewarding people for performance instead of activity.Those things are, in a nutshell, at the core of every bit of innovation in management writing over the last 30-40 years or so.  Which doesn’t make any of it a bad thing – it’s just a reminder that these ideas have been around for a very long time, and maybe we’re finally starting to see some of them come into fruition.

Unfortunately, despite all the cries to the contrary (including those coming from yours truly) – management is still, and always will be, quite necessary.

For instance, Pozin tells us that his innovative approach to managing his company – where people are organized into self-directed teams, has been going on for just 3 months. That is hardly long enough to declare sustainability to the approach.  He also declares, “Individuals need to be managed, but teams manage themselves.”  That statement, I believe, is wrong.  Or, at the very least, it’s mostly wrong…and it is mostly wrong due to a chronic misunderstanding and misapplication of what management is and should be.

Teams in simple environments are more able to “manage” themselves – which means they are able to organize their own activities and determine how to go about their work, assigning tasks to each person within the team.  Disputes are resolved, ideas are discussed, actions are taken.  All of which is to say that these teams, perhaps, don’t “manage” themselves – but, rather, that they lead themselves.  Managing is, of necessity, a bureaucratic and dogmatic process.  Coordinating the activities of a group of teams, especially as an organization grows increasingly complex, requires someone to help all those teams get organized.  In other words, someone must manage the interactions.Managing becomes necessary the more complex the organization becomes. Not “leading” or “coaching” or “mentoring” –  but “managing.”  Groups  of teams need coordination – Not in the childish way we push people around and call it “management” or bastardize such things into calling them “leadership,” but management – the coordinating of activities and the people who are going to perform them.

Someone needs to ensure the free flow of work throughout the organization.  Even the highest performing teams will need to have administrative things taken care of for them – facilities to work in, team members recruited, retained and substituted, legalities administered, etc.  Which, and especially in a highly complex organization, will require someone to coordinate the effort between teams and to identify and remove the roadblocks.  This means management.

The key is to make that management valuable and prevent it from becoming the hierarchical enigma we’ve all come to know – one whose only purpose is to maintain the hierarchy for its own sake regardless of the quality of work the teams that depend upon that management produce.  Management, when viewed as something that exists only to facilitate and enable the performance of work, becomes an important, vital and valuable function within the workplace.  When it exists to provide a layer of blind enforcement, unnecessary political and procedural activity, and as a salary enhancement vehicle for the technically proficient – its value diminishes to the point of being worthless.

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  • Ilja Preuss

    If I have learned *something* from complexity sciences, than that the more complex a system/situation becomes, the *less* likely a single leader/manager is likely to be able to understand well enough to take reasonable action. That is, the more important it becomes to enable the system to “manage” itself.