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Management Morons

Entry 1317, on 2011-07-25 at 20:42:59 (Rating 5, Comments)

I work in a large organisation which can be very bureaucratic, and this sometimes reflects the inadequacies of modern management processes. But it would be very unprofessional to comment on my workplace specifically so I want to discuss modern management in more general terms and also quote a few incidents from a similar large organisation a friend works in (who will remain unnamed of course).

So, first of all, what do I mean by modern management? It's maybe not such a great term because a lot of the principles are actually quite old, but it's really just about the way large organisations are organised. This almost universally means a hierarchical approach with a fixed reporting structure, a formal communications system, and a lot of detailed rules and guidelines about how things should be done.

Few people would deny that those attributes exist, but there would be a debate about the results they achieve. So let's look at the management principles and why, in my opinion, they don't work.

First there is the hierarchical structure with a CEO (or someone with a similar job title) at the top who has a series of senior managers below him (or sometimes her) who in turn have junior managers below them, then supervisors, and finally the actual "workers" (does that imply the others don't work?). Of course there are often even more layers in the system (and there actually are in the case I mentioned above).

Assuming the ultimate role of management is to enable things to get done why is it necessary to have so many layers between those who actually perform the core functions of the organisation and those who make the big decisions? Some people would suggest it is a good "buffer" system between the fantasy world of upper management and the hard reality of the real world.

In fact that is precisely what my friend reports. When an issue happens at the "coalface" it is reported up through the system, but for various reasons the message changes until it is unrecognisable. Why does it change? For two main reasons: first, the managers rarely really understand the problem so it is difficult for them to communicate it effectively; and second, the middle managers usually have a "political" agenda which involves only telling people further up the hierarchy what they want to hear so they often misrepresent the problem deliberately as well.

Both of these issues (lack of understanding and a political agenda) are natural consequences of the way management works. Managers tend to have little understanding because they have been isolated from the real work their organisation does for so long. They also tend to get to management positions because they are no good for anything else! Yes, I know this doesn't apply to everyone but it is remarkably common.

And managers tend to get to their positions of power not through competence in their profession, or through excellent organisation skills, but more through being good at working the system for their own benefit. In other words they are self centered, uncaring, and often quite immoral.

So hierarchies don't work in most cases. There are exceptions of course: some organisations have a sort of "benevolent dictatorship" in place and Apple would be the most famous example. In that case the company is lucky to have someone at the top who is genuinely innovative (instead of just using that word without really understanding what it means like most managers) and whose ideas are both brilliant and generally accepted by the equally brilliant staff who implement them. But Apple is very much the exception rather than the rule.

What about the rigid communications systems? Obviously some of the deficiencies I have described above could be overcome if more direct reporting was possible. But it rarely is. For example my friend reports he was recently working in the top manager's office and the subject of his work environment arose. There was an opportunity there for direct communications about the problems but it was made very clear that the manager in no way wanted to hear what was really happening. The happy ignorance resulting from the news passed up from the management team was obviously preferable.

Consultation is a word often heard in management circles but it's almost universally a farce. Managers often dream up some new structure then offer it for feedback but that almost never makes any difference. They have generally already decided on pushing through their agenda (which is often based on politics or pure ignorance) and no real feedback is accepted. Sometimes they will deliberately make the change more extreme than they need to then scale it back a bit to give the appearance of compromise but this is really just part of the farce.

And I have heard of a situation where an accounting firm was asked to advise on a restructuring which had huge negative consequences. But to show how accountable they were the managers had the new structure audited... by the same accounting firm who recommended it! That is just grossly corrupt and a huge waste of money at the same time. It's disgusting.

But it gets even worse. When their changes are rejected (as they almost always are) management have the temerity to say it's because the staff "can't accept change". That's just insulting and dishonest. Many people love change. If the change involved more freedom in their work, or better pay, or better conditions, or some other positive action the staff would be happy to accept it. But the changes management want aren't usually like that, are they?

And finally what about the rigid rules and regulations? I agree that large organisations need structure to operate effectively. It can't just be a "free for all" with everyone doing their own thing. But that doesn't mean that every action has to be scripted down to the smallest detail. Anyone who has contacted a foreign helpdesk and who is forced through the tedious process of performing a lot of unnecessary and counter-productive steps will know what I mean.

Additionally there is the point that an over-managed work environment doesn't encourage competent people to want to work there. If the staff are made to act like mindless zombies then that is the sort of staff you will get. It's a sort of self perpetuating system: impose mindless rules, get mindless staff, create more mindless rules for them...

It's time we got back to the real purpose of managers: to attend to the administrative and other needs of the people who do the real work, and who have the genuinely innovative and practical ideas. It's time the pretence we work under, that managers are in some way superior and automatically worth of respect was thrown away. If a manager is superior it should be obvious by his actions, and if he wants respect he should earn it like everyone else.

But with current standard of management I don't think that would happen much!


Comment 1 (2918) by OJB on 2011-08-03 at 12:05:43:

Update: My contact in the other organisation has reported to me recently on another incident which happened there. Apparently the management wanted feedback from their clients on how they were performing so decided to ask 5 "random" people for feedback. It turned out later that the 5 people asked were all friends and associates of the management team. I mean, it's not that hard to design a real randomised survey. Either these people were grossly incompetent or grossly corrupt. Which is worse? It's so hard to know!


Comment 2 (2921) by SBFL on 2011-08-09 at 11:32:45:

What our friend OJB fails to disclose here is that he works at a university. So when he starts "I work in a large organisation which can be very bureaucratic," = university. And in NZ universities are run by the Ministry of Tertiary Education, a government department. Maybe time for a sell off according to this post? Hehe.


Comment 3 (2924) by OJB on 2011-08-09 at 22:00:59:

I'm not criticising just public institutions, I'm talking about large organisations in general. And the ministry has little to do with how universities are really run The problem is that the management are trying to run them just like a private company. But they aim so low: we should be able to do much better than that!


Comment 4 (2927) by SBFL on 2011-08-11 at 10:06:19:

Okay I will give you that the gist of the post referred to a wider environment but you did start it with a personal situation without disclosing your employing state-run organisasion so you had to half expect someone was going to clarify this. Some of us do read your blog more than once :-)

"And the ministry has little to do with how universities are really run" - Hmmm, can't really agree with this. On a low level day-to-day basis you would likely be right, but strategically the Ministry and thus government of the day plays a very important part in the direction of the university and this ultimately filters down to the day-to-day. Consider the changes to your university in the last 30 years for instance. Not politically influenced?

While universities must manage budgets, I believe their key objectives differ from private commercial companies. I think I have made this point in an old comment, so maybe we agree a little bit here. But some concepts with in the private sector can be endorsed without the same financial target: performance is a classic one.

Speaking of varsities, have you done a post on VSM recently? It a bit of a hot topic at the moment, and OUSA have been at the cusp in a controversial sense.


Comment 5 (2930) by OJB on 2011-08-11 at 12:44:12:

Yes, I agree I work in a public institution. I suspect things are better here than the private sector though because there has been more of a tradition of self sufficiency and freedom from management excesses.

Sure the ministry and politicians have an influence but I don't get the impression that it is overwhelming and primarily responsible for the management culture here.

Good, so we agree that the objectives of universities are different from private companies. If they ever become the same universities will become pointless. Let's hope that never happens. This aim of "performance" is an interesting one. No one would deny we should aim for good performance. Many people would debate over what that means!

I think we should stick with compulsory membership of student unions. While I generally want as much freedom as possible I also recognise that there are collective benefits which can only be organised through compulsory fees: tax, rates, student union fees.

VSM is clearly a case of political fanaticism overcoming common sense.


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