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Management: a rant

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. -Inigo Montoya

Having worked in full-time management positions for some years now, I am increasingly convinced that management is widely misunderstood as a role, as a discipline and as a field, and that this makes a lot of lives more difficult and stressful than necessary. It is the subject of much speculation and misbelief, and I’ve chosen a few of my favorite examples to deconstruct here.

Misbelief #1: management is what managers do

I’ve noticed a trend among a certain class of companies, whose employees will tell anyone who will listen that there is no “management” in their organization, they never plan to have any, and neither should you. I think these statements are respectively a lie, a naïve belief, and a piece of bad advice. Usually, these companies are just a few years old and relatively small, most of the people in the company have been there for less than a year, and the speaker is trying to persuade us what a unique and innovative company they work for because nobody there is a “manager”. They invariably have not read The Tyranny of Structurelessness.

Management is the practice of enabling people to effectively cooperate. A manager is someone whose job is to do that. It’s that simple. It usually involves tasks such as sharing information, agreeing on a course of action, dividing up work, and figuring out what to do when there’s a problem. They’re things that every team needs to do, whether anyone is designated a “manager” or not. Teams can function without managers, but they can’t function properly without management. Someone (or everyone) has to do the work to make cooperation possible.

Modern management is a specialized discipline, which draws on a broad range of skills in communication, psychology, empathy, problem-solving, leadership, and more. These skills aren’t unique to managers, but it often makes sense to designate certain people to do more of the management work, on behalf of the team. By devoting more of their time and attention to it, they free other members of the team to focus on other tasks. They can act as a coordinator to help the team stay in sync, and by focusing on this job, they may be able to do a better job of it, and acquire a higher level of skill through practice and study. But it remains an inherently collaborative practice.

Misbelief #2: management is about telling people what to do

There are many different varieties of management, each of which is oriented toward a particular type of team or organization. Factories are managed differently from design studios, large companies are managed differently from small companies, and every team has its own distinct management style which arises from the unique group of people involved. Some managers are specialists in a particular type of management, while others are more generalists.

The “telling people what to do” style of management is called “command and control”. It’s characterized by authority, hierarchy, and strict adherence to protocol. It’s widely employed by military organizations, and by the managers we see in television and film. It has some advantages and disadvantages, which I won’t discuss here. My point is that it is just one example, but this example is used to represent the general concept of management. Self-organization, where no one in particular is responsible for group decisions, is another, quite different, style of management.

Small, self-organizing teams are capable of amazing feats of productivity. They’re less difficult to manage because they’re comparatively simple, and so simple tools and techniques work well. Everyone can be fully aware of what everyone else is doing, and new information propagates quickly throughout the team. But as the team or organization grows, it will often outgrow this way of working, and needs to adapt. There is no single management approach which works universally well.

Misbelief #3: management is a promotion

You know the story. When an employee is successful within their area of expertise, someone will eventually offer them a management role as a “reward” for their good work. This is utter nonsense. Management is not a promotion: it’s a career change. It means starting over as a beginner in a new discipline and learning from the ground up. Domain expertise is important, as a manager needs to understand the work of the other people on their team, but it is no longer paramount. The team, the human system, becomes their focus.

When organizations fail to provide career advancement within a discipline, people may turn to management as “the only way to get promoted”, only to discover that they are completely unprepared for this new field, and often their new job when they realize what they’ve gotten into.

If someone were “promoted” from a position as a financial analyst to a new job as a biochemist with no training or expertise, we would probably find this bizarre. But this is analogous to what happens to new managers all the time, and has become almost standard practice in many organizations and industries.

So what?

Management is misunderstood. So are science, engineering, and many other fields. What does it matter?

“People leave managers not companies…in the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue,”

– Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman, First, Break All the Rules

This mythology leads to massive organizational dysfunction, making it harder for everyone to do their jobs. It virtually guarantees incompetent management, which is a scourge on anyone who is exposed to it. It ruins days, weeks, jobs and careers. It leads talented people to leave companies, and it drives them out of their chosen professions.

I recommend that we stop denigrating and ignoring management, and start doing a better job of it.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 7, 2013 at 13:24

Posted in Uncategorized

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28 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, Matt.

    My management philosophy for my team is that I want to:

    1) Help each of the team to be successful in their work, and happy executing tht work.
    2) Help them to be successful in their wider career by expanding their skills and experience.

    I don’t think management is just about squeezing productivity out of people, but having a personal relationship with them and having them know that their manager has their best interests at heart.

    I think a lot of this is about timing. As an example, I think it makes sense for a new hire to join the team and have time to learn their role, the team, and understand the parameters of their role. In this case I like to “protect’ them from pressure from above and help to translate company requirements into practical work they can focus on. This is when I will ask people senior to me to go through me when they have requirements.

    But as the new hire evolves in their role I want to grow their skills in thinking strategically, and then get them to a point where they can shine in front of senior management. This is not about me asking them about work items and deliverables every week, but instead helping to develop their skills so they can think like a manager and think like an exec to pre-empt needs and expectations. This will help them understand strategy better, map strategy to work, and understand the perspectives and needs of people outside the team.

    This ultimately results in senior management developing confidence in the team and the function they bring to the organization, but it also makes the team feel like I have their back and their wider career interests in mind, which brings us closer as a team.

    I think management theory is vastly over-complication – to me it is as simple as having your team’s best interests at heart and helping them to be successful.

    Jono Bacon (@jonobacon)

    November 7, 2013 at 14:48

    • Apologies for the typos – have been typing quickly before a call. Thanks!

      Bad Voltage (@badvoltage)

      November 7, 2013 at 14:53

      • One more apology – apologies for the incorrect Twitter account for my last message. Today Bacon can’t win, it seems.

        Jono Bacon (@jonobacon)

        November 7, 2013 at 14:54

  2. I’ve been in the working world for about 30 years now and approximately every time I quit a job it was due to bad managers. Managers that can actually do management are a pretty rare thing. IME people leave managers, not companies is exactly right.

    Scott K

    November 7, 2013 at 23:27

  3. A big amen to this, and thanks for the write-up. Over the years I talked to many of my friends and my wife about their experience at work, and it keeps scaring me how excruciatingly bad their management is in so many cases. And moreover, that many of them actually seem to think “that’s the way it should be”, apparently because they never experienced what real and good management is.

    I consider management not really something which is “above” me in the sense of importance or being better/more capable, but just “above” me in the sense that they care for the whole company/team whereas I as an engineer focus on the deep details of a small part of that. So from my POV my manager is providing *me* with service at least as much as I’m providing him. :-)

    So I’m really happy to work for a tech company (Canonical) where great management is pretty much built into the culture; I even dare to say that it’s inevitable, because it’s way too easy to change teams or even the company if/when engineers get frustrated.

    Martin Pitt

    November 8, 2013 at 02:06

  4. Very well articulated! And for what it is worth I have been very impressed to watch your evolution and conscious growth from excellent Techie (with not the best people management skills) to an incredible self-aware and principled true leader. You inspire me!


    November 8, 2013 at 02:55

  5. Some remarks regarding the third misbelief. Most of my companions are aiming a management position even they’ve studied cs and after a very good (but short) management crashcourse which mentioned all of the misbeliefes.

    In europe( I don’t know if this applies world wide) a raise in salary can be only achieved at a certain point going into management fulltime. I can understand that, most of the companies are not willing to pay for good developers.

    Therefor a lot of people aiming this career. It makes me sad seing talented programmers becoming bad managers.


    November 8, 2013 at 04:07

    • It is a common problem that companies don’t provide enough of a career track for individual contributors. Some companies do have, for example, a software engineering career track which goes all the way to VP- and C-level roles for engineers. It’s not impossible, but it is comparatively rare.

      I haven’t thought much about why that is. Perhaps it’s because managers are the ones working on things like career tracks?

      Matt Zimmerman

      November 8, 2013 at 11:57

  6. Unfortunately when an amazing developer is “promoted” to manager, he/she suddenly forgets how to code and learn how to “spreadsheet” everything.

    Alfonso E.M.

    November 8, 2013 at 05:09

    • They are faced with a different set of problems, and try to find the right tools for solving them. I don’t think software managers suddenly forget, but they do find that it is no longer the most important thing for them to do.

      The alternative is often worse: the “manager” spends a lot of time programming, because they’re good at it and enjoy it, and nobody does the management work.

      Matt Zimmerman

      November 8, 2013 at 11:54

  7. Reblogged this on .


    November 8, 2013 at 09:59

  8. It seems to me that apart from #3 your rant boils down to complaining that people use words differently from you. In normal parlance management implies a locus of control and your attempt to redefine it otherwise is somewhat like a physicist complaining about the coloquial usage of words like energy and charm. If the control in an organisation is sufficiently difuse then it lacks management in the ordinary english language sense of the word. If somebody co-ordinates an activity but lacks control we usually find a different word for them like organiser.

    William Hay

    November 8, 2013 at 11:02

    • Yes, language is a significant part of it, but I think the words we choose matter. Interestingly, the way I use the word is not novel at all, and is consistent with how the practice was described in literature throughout much of the 20th century

      Matt Zimmerman

      November 8, 2013 at 11:52

      • I assume by literature you mean management/business literature rather than the great novels of the 20th century? I agree the words we use are important but I think your goal-oriented definition is a poor choice even if it is used by specialists since as far as I can tell it adds nothing to the language but confusion. Would anything be lost if you used organise and variants thereof in place of your sense of manage?

        William Hay

        November 8, 2013 at 13:22

  9. Best manager (thank you Don Bowman) I ever had when I was still an engineer said:

    “I am here as a facilitator. My job is to understand what you need to do what you do better.
    You and I are peers in finding success.”

    I too followed the path described.. “promoted” to manager and spent years trying to continue
    the above philosophy… very successfully by most accounts.

    What eventually beat me down was facing the fact that managers above me did not have such a philosophy. Many had “their” success at the forefront and not the success of the team/organization.


    November 10, 2013 at 03:41

  10. […] A great post. Management: a rant | By Matt Zimmerman via @kstewart mdzlog.alcor.net/2013/11/07/man… […]

  11. Reblogged this on #!/home/alvonsius/untitled and commented:
    For a managers who belief that their position is very hard … read this. I have read it, and realized that all three misbeliefs written there is exactly what I have on my head.

    I have to change something then …


    November 11, 2013 at 01:19

  12. LOVE this, particularly the part about management being a career change and your last sentence! Hear, hear!

    Liza Wood

    November 15, 2013 at 19:42

  13. […] Management: a rant (mdzlog.alcor.net) […]

  14. […] Management: A Rant (Matt Zimmerman) […]

  15. thanks


    November 19, 2013 at 21:50

  16. […] art of enabling people to cooperate in achieving shared goals. I’ve written elsewhere about what management is not. Management is a multifaceted discipline which is centered on people and the environment in which […]

  17. […] the art of enabling people to cooperate in achieving shared goals. I’ve written elsewhere about what management is not. Management is a multifaceted discipline which is centered on people and the environment in which […]

  18. […] Management: a rant (mdzlog.alcor.net) […]

  19. This was a fantastic post! My favorite line, “Modern management is a specialized discipline, which draws on a broad range of skills in communication, psychology, empathy, problem-solving, leadership, and more.” I think you hit the nail right on the head. A manager is so much more than someone who just tells people what to do. After reading this I have to recommend to you a fantastic business book I just read entitled, “Wiki Management” by author Rod Collins(http://www.wikimanagementbook.com). It outlines in great detail a revolutionary new way of managing businesses that focus on collaborative effort and learning, rather than an antiquated notion of boss-employee relationships.The book stresses that a 19th century management model, command and control, is no longer sustainable in a 21st century world. It is time to allow the workers to be highly involved in shaping strategic thinking. Companies such as Google and Amazon have adopted these practices and instead of suffering during the recession business has clearly boomed! There is no guaranteed method that all businesses can follow but this book definitely provides enough ideas and practices so that every manager should be able to find a new method they can adopt for their workplace :) I highly recommend it to any business owners or managers who feel bogged down by change or who are looking to make a change for the better

    Stacey B.

    November 29, 2013 at 09:33

  20. Wonderful!! wish blunt headed guys read this and realize what they are practicing day to day…thanks a bunch Matt!!


    February 11, 2014 at 00:55

  21. […] 以下是我們應該要顛倒層次結構,將管理作為一個服務角色、一個支持位置來接受的一些原因。 […]

  22. […] are some of the reasons why we should invert the hierarchy and embrace management as a service role, a support […]

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