It’s not very often that you realise that a startling change is underway in the world. But I had one of those epiphanic moments at the recently concluded TCS European Summit at Budapest.
At the Summit, Ruud Gullit, who has the personality to take over the room when he speaks, spoke about his key frustration with today’s footballers. His key complaint was that today’s players have lost the element of personality and opinion and have become followers of instructions. They no longer have their own views about how they should play, or where they should position themselves. They leave that entirely to the manager. This seems to mirror how American football is played, where the coach does all the thinking and the players are effectively automatons on the pitch, following instructions. This is an armchair debate we’ve all had about our favourite sport — what’s the role of the captain on the pitch? How much does the coach or manager influence or control the decision making? For coaches like Pep Guardiola, it seems that there is a very high level of control and specificity about his instructions and players are, in fact, urged to simply follow the plan. For others, the level of separation between management and execution may vary. But I was intrigued by Gullit’s idea that football is being taken over by management.
Management as we know it is, of course, a product of the industrial revolution. Mass production and factories created production lines and turned people into automatons, where they were required to do, not think. And the control, evaluation, governance and thinking was all abstracted to a supervisory layer of people whose job was to think and not do. And thus modern management was born. While this has always existed in the historical context, in armies and in the construction of castles, pyramids and fortresses from the earliest days, the emergence of a global, scaled middle class came only with the dramatic rise in mass production of goods and services. One of the most dramatic changes in production philosophies — lean manufacturing — actually involves getting factory production workers to think. But conversely, even in white-collar work in a lot of businesses, there is an abundance of people doing apparently cerebral jobs like talking to customers, who have been turned into automatons who have to follow a script. They’ve been reduced to doing, rather than thinking.
Today the world over, Management has been enshrined as the backbone of how every organisation works. It is seen as the difference between success and failure. Managers are rewarded many times more handsomely than the most productive worker. Decision making is seen as the preserve of the manager. To serve this need, business schools have long produced people trained to be managers. It is both an art and a science. It involves people skills, domain knowledge, technical skills, risk-taking ability, leadership, problem-solving and many others. So much so that management is synonymous with leadership today.
So when Michael Clijdsdale from ING suggested that we should basically get rid of management, a ripple of laughter went around the room. It was one of those jokes speakers make. But it became obvious in his next few sentences that he was in fact, serious. And over the following days, having spoken with other leaders, and correlating with what I’ve been reading and reflecting on, I’ve come to realise that this wasn’t just a stray opinion and that there is indeed a big change underway. This is based on 3 pillars:
The first is the now universally accepted idea that software is, in fact, eating the world. More and more of the value of business and commercial activities are tied to the software rather than the hardware or human activity involved. In the book Breaking Smart, the author Venkatesh Rao articulates this very well. He talks about how software helps industries ‘break smart’ by moving into a world of software-driven value which allows them to change the business models, and reorganise themselves around a new set of economic and externalities. This reorganisation often requires rethinking organisational structures and processes, often increasing technology infrastructure and software and cognitive processes, rather than the industrial and management processes.
The second is the evolution of how software is actually created. The Agile Manifesto was created in 2000 by a group of seasoned developers who believed that better software could be developed, more efficiently, if they reduced the separation between management (thinking, planning) and execution (coding). Agile has come a long way since then and is now at the heart of a lot of significant enterprise platforms. Agile puts the focus and the responsibility back into the self-managed team and reduces management overload. Agile teams today set their own pace, course-correct as necessary, think and act in equal measure and end up delivering more than teams that are externally managed.
The third is the VUCA world we find ourselves in. The term was created by the US military but increasingly has become more mainstream. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous — an apt description for the world most businesses find themselves in. From uncertainty about the outcome of political negotiations such as Brexit, or trade wars, or the volatility of extreme weather conditions, the complexity of interlinked economic events, or the uncertainty of disruptive technologies. VUCA conditions reduce the impact of planning and control and instead reward agility, adaptability and empowered choices.
When you add these 3 up, you start to understand why this might be the end of management as we know it — a layer of people whose only job is to manage other people and own the thinking and planning role without actually being able to execute the tasks themselves. This is not to say we won’t need management, thinking, and planning — we will. It’s just that these tasks will also be done by those actually doing the work. And conversely, we may see the end of the pure execution role. Those tasks that are performed by people acting as automatons, will, in fact, be done by machines in the future. What we’ll get is a new category of empowered workers. Collaborative teams that can plan, think, build and run. To give you a military analogy, a general who plans a battle but sits in headquarters is of very limited use when the battle conditions change frequently and strategy and tactics need to be adapted in near real time. Conversely, soldiers who can’t (or aren’t allowed to) adapt to the changing needs are also likely to be doomed to failure.
The first place we will see this is in software and technology development and operations. Software development is the sharp end of this change, and some of the newest thinking about work and its organisation in the recent past has come from the software and technology world. Open source, collaborative working, mobility, network effects and platformisation, and the gig economy, just to name a few. It is likely that as software continues to eat the world, and our organisations, we will see it swallow the traditional (industrial era) style of management, in favour of empowered doers. Ironically, therefore, even as technology replaces some jobs, in the longer term, it may be the best thing that happened to workers.