Illusions of Control, Delusions of Management

February 24th, 2016

I have been working recently in two situations where the ‘doer’ of work is at a distance – in geography, in time, in culture – from the ‘manager’ who wants the work done. This led me to ponder the conventional ideas of control and management and, particularly, of traditional hierarchical organisation.

In the first situation a company with a national reach employs thousands of low paid workers to carry out routine maintenance and hygiene work on behalf of its client in hundreds of locations. The ‘doers’ come from many different cultures. Each location is thousands of square feet in space, in some cases hundreds of thousands of square feet, usually over several discrete rooms and with significant near ceiling height obstructions to visibility. With just one site supervisor, a short shift and a small number of workers, I end up wondering how much, if any, supervision or management can be carried out.

In the second situation, multiple organisations with an international reach employ dozens of highly paid, highly qualified workers to carry out investigative and development work in again dozens of locations. This work engages experts from a number of different intellectual traditions, and like the first example, many cultures and languages. Each of the specific locations is relatively small but are distanced from each other by hundreds, in some cases thousands, of miles and are in different time zones. With such distances and differences, I end up again wondering whether any meaningful supervision or management can be conducted.

Now, while these examples appear to be drawn from opposite ends of a continuum, they have perhaps more in common than is immediately apparent. What we have – in either situation – is a largely self-supervising, self-motivating and self-managing workforce, or not, how can we know? If there is supervision or management, how effective can it be? How much does it add value as opposed to cost?

I pondered further on this when in a review of The Intelligent Organisation (Routledge, 2016) on Amazon, a reviewer wrote:

“to sweep away beneficial bureaucracy in the way suggested and replace it with an anarchic regime would be an act of extreme courage…..We are not as stupid as the author infers.”

Now, to reassure the reviewer (and the rest of you), at no point do I propose replacing bureaucracy (beneficial or otherwise) with an anarchic regime – in fact I specifically warn against it, arguing at length (Chapters 7 & 8) that we need to understand ‘how much autonomy is enough’. I do though argue that our bureaucratically hierarchical organisations are inadequate to address the challenges of contemporary organisation. They need to be redesigned with information based hierarchy in which decisions are made as close to the customer as possible by the individual(s) who have the necessary information to make those decisions – provided always that they act in a manner consistent with the identity and purpose of the organisation (and therefore I cannot be arguing for anarchy!).

But back to the plot….

Our traditional hierarchies are based on managing where people are and developed when most people to be managed were within eyeshot and earshot – ‘managers’ could see and talk to ‘doers’, ‘doers’ could see and talk to ‘managers’. In those circumstances, although in essence what managers were observing was where people were, they at least had a good chance of observing also what they were doing.

In contemporary organisations – and my two opening examples might be thought of as extremes – many of the people to be managed are not visible, they work in different offices, at home, on the journey to work, in a different time zone, country and language. Equally, many of the people doing the managing are similarly not visible, partly perhaps because they waste most of their working lives in other peoples’ meetings, but mainly because they are at a distance.

Where we end up is with the illusion of control – we have a reporting structure in place, ‘doers’ have ‘managers’, and therefore everything is being done. Similarly, we have delusions of management, ‘managers’ have ‘doers’ in a reporting structure therefore everyone is being managed. Meanwhile, the reality is that ‘doers’ are mainly managing themselves and ‘managers’ are mainly kidding themselves that they make a difference.

If we were sensible, we would realise that the market drive to reduce costs and the technology enabled drive to delayer organisations (managing at a distance) renders our traditional mental model of management redundant. We need to develop and adopt a new mental model based on the belief that most people want to do a good job most of the time and that managers (at whatever level) need to design the work and the control systems in a way that supports that – and then trust them to get on with it because that reflects the reality of the situation!

So, what might that model look like?

Now, to quote my friend Keith Elford,

“the old model presupposes a notion of supervision and direction – telling people what to do and making sure they do it.  This is impractical in many modern workplaces. But there can be monitoring of outputs and outcomes? There can be activity to ensure clarity of purpose and desired outcomes? There can be activity to enable people to feel valued, connected etc.?”

So, perhaps, where the organisation is such that the ‘doers’ and the ‘managers’ are physically, temporally or culturally distant from each other, we need to shift away from managing through an input specification (“carry out these tasks”) to managing through an outcome specification (“achieve these ends”).

Of course in doing this we would have to understand what the input specification needed to be (in order to be able to establish the quantity of work expected, the number of people, hours and amount of materials required for their completion) and we would also need to plan and schedule the workforce, holidays, training, equipment and so on. However, we would then monitor performance NOT through some impractical and ineffective process of supervision but through both quantitative measurement of outcome (through an audit process) and qualitative assessment (perhaps through survey or observation).

Effective audit (implying appropriate randomness in the audit process itself) would reveal whether the inputs were being provided (to reassure the accountants!) while the evaluation would reveal whether the outcomes were being achieved. The role of the ‘manager’ would then revolve around two improvement loops:

The use of information about performance to improve the input specification (eliminating waste, improving process);

The use of personal skills to educate, guide, lead, motivate and stimulate the ‘doers’.

Management is also work but work that, rather than accounting for inputs, improves the work of others in terms of achieving the desired outcome.