Is all management bad? Or is it just bad management?

There is an interesting piece in this week’s Economist about the poor quality of management in the UK, “For Britain to grow faster it needs better managers” (paywall). It suggests bad management is a large part of the productivity gap between the UK and other developed nations. Living in the UK, and having seen inside many British companies this rings true with me. I’ve long thought it was less a case of “In search of excellence” and more a case of “In search of mediocracy.”

Now that said, I don’t have an objective point of view: I’ve been involved with many “project rescues” or “turn arounds” (actually I quite enjoy them, call me!) in the UK but my clients abroad are normally more stable. I suspect this is selection bias: because I’m UK based it is easy to ask for help. Flying someone in from abroad is a barrier so only the better managed companies in Europe and the USA would do it. So while I might think UK management is bad it is entirely possible that it is bad everywhere. Indeed, I am sure there is bad management everywhere, and there is good management too; but in the UK the ratio of bad to good is higher.

The international agile movement doesn’t do much to encourage management to improve. All the anti-manager talk (“self managing teams”, “no project managers”, etc.) creates a barrier. It has long been my view that such anti-manager talk is largely a reaction to bad management and it is entirely possible that “no management” is better than “bad management.”

Simultaneously, “good management” can be value adding, people don’t push back on “good management” (even if it gets branded as bad just because it is management). Sometimes, making things better for the many means being unpopular with a few. The few will voice their complaints more loudly than the many will voice their praise, and often it is hard to attribute success to managers anyway.

What we miss

The common agile view of management as “a bad thing” misses two points:

First off: removing the managers will remove some management work but will leave a lot. Removing managers does not remove management work. The work which remains either doesn’t get done (worse still) or is spread around those who remain so everyone’s work gets disrupted. On the whole these people don’t want to be managers, so they are unhappy and don’t have management skills. They do have other skills – business analysis, Java, support desk, whatever – so now they are not using their most productive skills and are unhappy with it.

Second, and more importantly: removing managers does’t do anything to improve the skills of those who do management work. Whether this is managers in place or people who have to step up when managers are fired. In other words, all this talk of “no managers” stops us from improving management skills one way or another.

Yes, I think workers and teams should have a voice in the work they do.

Yes, I think we should make group decisions and take into account diverse opinions.

Yes, managers sometimes need to use authority but good managers spend more time nudging, enthusing, guiding, structuring. Occasional use of authority can help, over use undermines.

Yes, I think people can take more responsibility. Some of what passes for management work is admin that could be dropped, information sharing which could be automated, or managers making work for other managers.

But I happen to think good management recognises all those things and respects the expert workers.

Bad management ignores all those things and subscribes to the “Action Hero model of management”: you do this, you do that, I’ll siege the bridge, if I’m not back in 10 blow it all to kingdom come, move it!

The irony is, those who subscribe strongest to the “no management” meme will say “Let the engineers (or doctors, or designers, or whatever) run things” but when you do that you find a management style cadre arises who are experts in their own field. Being a senior engineer (or whatever profession) often means being a type of manager, they need their original skills but they also need some management skills. If they don’t learn new skills those people become bad managers.

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