So I’ve been thinking a bit since my last post, about how to tie those visions of taking responsibility for oneself to management structures. What would a management structure that followed those principles look like? I don’t really have any answers yet (nobody does, I suspect), but here’s some ideas.
Let’s start with what’s out there now. I’ll start with two of my favorite case studies of unusual management structures. The first is Gore & Associates. This page has a good summary of the management structure there, or you can read Gore’s own description. But the basic idea is that Gore implemented a flat management structure, where everybody except him was an “associate” and at the same level. At one point, though, Gore realized that his factory had grown so big that he didn’t know everybody (a consequence of Dunbar’s number (see previous references to Dunbar’s number in this post or this book review)). And when the group of people grows that big, normal social mechanisms break down, which is why larger organizations have bureaucracies and organization charts. Gore disliked that idea, so rather than put in a management hierarchy, he split the plant. And that policy has apparently continued to the present day; any time a plant reaches a size of more than 150 people or so, it splits, and within each plant, a flat management structure is maintained. It sounds like a very cool organization to work for. Autonomy of each employee is encouraged, even required. I read an article at some point where a new associate talked about being lost for a few months, because they were waiting for somebody to tell them what to do. When they finally started exploring the plant on their own, they saw some ways they could help and jumped in.
So that’s one case study. The other well known one is the North Carolina General Electric jet engine plant, which is described in this Fast Company article. Same sort of idea. The plant has about 170 workers. No management structure other than a plant manager. Self-organized teams. Management by consensus. It’s not easy – they get training in consensus building, and in compromise. But if a worker sees something that needs doing, he either does it himself, or brings it up with the team to get the resources necessary.
And the team members always have the power to change things that don’t work out. Says Williams: “All the things you normally fuss and moan about to yourself and your buddies — well, we have a chance to do something about them. I can’t say, ‘They’ don’t know what’s going on, or, ‘They’ made a bad decision. I am ‘they.’ ”
Why aren’t situations like these more commonplace? They sound incredibly appealing to me. But I can think of several reasons why they aren’t the norm. The obvious one is that people like management hierarchies. They like knowing where they stand. It appeals to our innate primate that kowtows to the alpha monkeys above us, and beats up the subservient monkeys beneath us. It appeals to our sense of competition, our desire to “get ahead”. After all, if there’s no way to keep score, then how do we know if we’re winning?
Another reason is the limitations imposed by Dunbar’s number. Past a certain size, organizations need some sort of structure to hold it together. It’s similar to the need for a skeleton in organisms – you don’t see invertebrates get too large in general (okay, “largest invertebrate” on google reveals the 60 foot giant squid but you get my point). Bureaucracy provides the frame on which organizations can grow larger. But it comes at a decided cost in efficiency, as workers’ initiative is squelched, and every decision requires a tremendous overhead in communication.
While thinking about this, I also came to the conclusion that today’s management structures are well designed. For the industrial age. They reflect the problems faced by the assembly line and the factory, where the goal is reproducibility and task efficiency. It’s all about the lessons taught by Frederick Taylor and his theories of Scientific Management. Taylor studied early factories and noticed that many workers were doing their routine repeated tasks in a decidedly inefficient manner. By applying his principles, he was able to optimize the amount of time each task took, thus improving productivity. In other words, Taylor was the first to say that management knows best how the worker should do his job. And from that assertion comes management hierarchies and micromanaging.
How do Taylor’s theories hold up in today’s world? Not very well. His central initiative was optimizing routine repeated tasks to increase efficiency. There are no more routine repeated tasks in a typical workplace today. Anything that is routine has been automated to be performed by machines. If it hasn’t been automated completely, it’s been outsourced to someplace where people will do it more cheaply than the US, which is why all low-skill manufacturing has been moved to China or Indonesia or places like that. So what’s left here? The non-routine tasks. The ones that require initiative and creativity and innovation to handle.
In this relatively new situation, Taylor’s theories are among the worst to apply. When handling problems of innovation, the more fresh perspectives that can be brought upon a problem, the better. The worst thing you can do is to disenfranchise workers from the decision process. In most cases, the workers are in the best position to help innovation since they are closest to the work and can see the best ways to improve it. Places like Gore & Associates and the GE jet engine plant that are doing high-end technology innovation have figured this out. I wonder how long it will take for the rest of corporate America to catch up.
Not only is it more efficient, but it makes employees happier. Everybody likes to feel like they’re contributing. That they have control over what they’re working on. That they have a sense of ownership and responsibility for what they’re working on. And I would submit that a person that doesn’t want that sort of responsibility is a person that should not be hired. They’re probably a person who likes to freeload off of other people’s work, leeching along, trying to avoid blame and vulturing credit where they can. I guess I can only speak for myself, but I’m happy to take responsibility for a project. The only thing I ask is that I be given the concomitant degree of control over the project. Giving responsibility without giving up control is a manager’s way of trying to take credit without wanting to be blamed. And it’s demoralizing. I’ve become incredibly allergic to such situations at work. Some might say that I should just step up and make the best of it. And maybe I should. It’s something I’ve been struggling with. Anyway.
One last thought on management structures. While I may dislike Orson Scott Card’s column, Ender’s Game has some great insights into how to get the most out of gifted people. In particular, check out this description of Ender’s command structure at the end of the book, fighting against the buggers, which have a hive mind (that I would compare to a typical top-down management hierarchy).
“…as the battle progressed, he would skip from one leader’s point of view to another’s, making suggestions and, occasionally, giving orders as the need arose. Since the others could only see their own battle perspective, he would sometimes give them orders that made no sense to them, but they, too learned to trust Ender. If he told them to withdraw, they withdrew, knowing that either they were in an exposed position, or their withdrawal might entice the enemy into a weakened posture. They also knew that Ender trusted them to do as they judged best when he gave them no orders. If their style of fighting were not right for the situation they were placed in, Ender would not have chosen them for that assignment.”
This is pretty close to an ideal management philosophy in my eyes. Ender, the manager, is responsible for the big picture, assigns his employees to various tasks, keeps them aware of the overall vision, but trusts them to accomplish their task within the context of that overall vision. He doesn’t get in their way, he doesn’t second guess them or try to micromanage them (in fact, there’s a telling sequence earlier in the book when he’s learning to use the simulator – he first tries to win by piloting individual ships in his fleet, but quickly learns that that level of micromanagement leads to failure).
What are the advantages of such an approach? Ender’s teacher, analyzing his group:
“The bugger hive-mind is very good, but it can only concentrate on a few things at once. All your squadrons can concentrate a keen intelligence on what they’re doing, and what they’ve been assigned to do is also guided by a clever mind. … Every single one of our ships contains an intelligent human being who’s thinking on his own. Every one of us is capable of coming up with a brilliant solution to a problem. They can only come up with one brilliant solution at a time. The buggers think fast, but they aren’t smart all over.”
There you go. Greater available intelligence concentrated on the problems at hand. Where’s the downside?
I could spend a lot more time railing about why I think that such management practices haven’t made it into the mainstream yet. I mentioned a few possible reasons already. I think the biggest one may be the fear of managers of losing control. It’s scary to give up control, when you hold ultimate responsibility for a task. But failure to give up control demonstrates a lack of trust in your employees. And that mistrust is incredibly demoralizing. To me, at least. If you don’t think I can do the job, then why are you employing me? If you think I can do it, get out of my way.
Okay, it’s late, and I’ve devolved into plain ranting. I’d like to speculate on this some more at some point. Heck, I’ve always thought about these things – check out this post from nine years ago (scroll down). Actually, skimming through that post reminds me that I should re-read Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World. Flipping through it briefly makes it look like he concentrates more on the problems of design rather than social organization. But I think the principles apply in both. Anyway. I stop now.