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Scaling Human Systems: Management

This is part 6 in a series on organizational design and growth.

“The change from a business that the owner-entrepreneur can run with “helpers” to a business that requires management is a sweeping change. […] One can compare the two kinds of business to two different kinds of organism: the insect, which is held together by a tough, hard skin, and the vertebrate animal, which has a skeleton. Land animals that are supported by a hard skin cannot grow beyond a few inches in size. To be larger, animals must have a skeleton. Yet the skeleton has not evolved out of the hard skin of the insect; for it is a different organ with different antecedents. Similarly, management becomes necessary when an organization reaches a certain size and complexity. But management, while it replaces the “hard-skin” structure of the owner-entrepreneur, is not its successor. It is, rather, its replacement.”

Peter Drucker

What it means

Management is 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 they work.

Why it’s important

In very small organizations, management can be comparatively easy, and happen somewhat automatically, especially between people who have worked together before. But as organizations grow, management becomes a first-class concern, requiring dedicated practice and a higher degree of skill. Without due attention to management, coordination becomes excessively difficult, working systems are outgrown and become strained, and much of the important work described in this series just won’t happen. Management is part of the infrastructure of the organization, and specifically the part which enables it to adapt and change as it grows.

Old Status Quo

People generally “just do stuff”, meaning there is little conscious understanding of the system in which people are working. If explicit managers exist, their jobs are poorly understood. Managers themselves may be confused or uncertain about what their purpose is, particularly if they are in such a role for the first time. The organization itself has probably developed more through accretion than deliberate design.

New Status Quo

People work within systems which help coordinate their work. These systems are consciously designed, explicitly communicated, and changed as often as necessary. Managers guide and coordinate the development and continuous improvement of these systems. The role of managers in the organization is broadly understood, and managers receive the training, support and coaching they need to be successful.

Behaviors that help

  • It can be helpful to bring more experienced managers into the organization at this stage, especially if there isn’t much management experience in house.
  • Show everyone in the organization (including managers themselves) what managers do and why it matters.
  • Consider very carefully whether someone should become a manager.
  • If someone does take on a management role, treat this as a completely new job, which requires handing off their existing responsibilities and learning a new discipline. Don’t treat it as just an extension of their work. Write a new job description and discuss it up front.

Obstacles that stand in our way

  • Management misbeliefs
  • Granting “promotions” to management roles as rewards for performance
  • Many people, when they experience what management work is like, don’t enjoy it and aren’t motivated by it. It can be hard to predict when this will be the case, and people can feel “trapped” in a management role that they don’t want. Make sure there are mechanisms to gracefully transition out of roles that don’t fit for the people holding them.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 20, 2013 at 14:40

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