We Don’t Need No Stinking Management?
In 2008, a team of researchers set out to prove what some at Google suspected – that managers don’t matter. But very quickly the team discovered quite the opposite. Managers matter a lot. In fact, Google employees with strong managers reported being happier and more productive.

This Google re:Work excerpt reminds me that not so long ago, the tech industry, led by Google, had this fantasy that management, and organizational hierarchies, were a revenant of the industrial past, superfluous, perhaps.

Of course, when you found a monopoly based on an algorithm, you can be excused for missing the human factors that come with running a company.  I do give the founders credit for eventually seeing the fault in their thinking, and I do enjoy their re:Work posts.

Replace /manager/product owner/a

In my own industry of software development, we heard a similar fantasy of self-managing teams via the Agile manifesto.  As I have commented on before, there is a lot of nonsense and hype written about agile-this and agile-that, and a deep misunderstandings of what agile practices are truly valuable.

I highly recommend Mark Schwartz‘s excellent book about how the invention of the agile “product owner” was a neat trick, because it freed agile programmers from any responsibility for delivering “business value”.  Voila, we now have “self-managing teams”.  “Scaled agile” is filled with diagrams of self-managing agile teams seamlessly feeding each other software artifacts on schedule like so many mechanical watches.

Good thing those product owners are on the job making sure that software is actually valuable.  Unfortunately, “business value” is totally ambiguous term, completely dependent on the business context where it is used.  For example, I suspect most naive agile true-believers would have a hard time accepting mundane factors like “on-time and within-budget” as legitimate parts of “business value”.

The Holacracy Dream

The “no managers” virus has spread in other ways too.  My favorite is the holacracy fantasy, where not only managers, but the whole idea of organizational hierarchies is questioned.

Businessman shouting at his colleague in the office

But then again, consider the source:   Yes, delivering superior customer service requires reps to have lots of autonomy, but Zappos wasn’t the first to discover that fact.  If Zappos were a more complex business that actually designed or made shoes, or was expected to show normal profit margins, I suspect the seduction of holacracy would have been a lot less compelling.  Then again, maybe eliminating managers was the solution to the profit margin problem.

I wonder what the rate of  holacracy adoption is in financial services, healthcare, the military…

Bad Algorithm Analogies

The logical leap to self-managing organization structures seems to me to be another example of mis-applying an algorithm to create a simple solution to a messay human problem.  Pretty clearly, spending one’s day communing with computers has a tendency to convince you that algorithms are sufficient to control the complexities of the world, both individually and collectively.  Sometimes programmers just don’t get out and about enough.

To this long time manager, the “no manager” meme mis-attributes the success of certain highly focused digital firms — think Google when it was just search, or Zappos, for example — with more complex firms.  And complex firms, after all, constitute most of the world’s economy.

Although that doesn’t excuse HBR from another puff piece like this.  But I guess management consulting always needs something new to hype besides competence.  Maybe management consultants are just jealous of Salesforce’s success — a software firm, mind you — with a “no software” brand.