The future is self-management

Two late 19th century theorists still firmly inform management thinking.

Henri Fayol’s functions of management pretty well sum up how many managers see their responsibilities today.

  1. To forecast and plan
  2. To organize
  3. To command or direct
  4. To coordinate

F.W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management viewed management as the necessary controlling layer in order to systematize work and make it efficient. If labourers could not adapt to managers’ directions, then they should be let go.

Principles of Scientific ManagementMuch of management thinking is still overly focused on managers. It is premised on a parent-child relationship, with managers requiring special training and increased rewards in order to look after their ‘direct-reports’. But today, a lot of management can be done with machines. You don’t need a manager to find information. Managers don’t always have the right answers. As managers lose control over information flow, their usefulness is decreasing. Labour today is not made up of predominantly bricklayers and iron workers, which Taylor’s studies were based on. In a new company, like game-maker Valve Corp., owner Gabe Newell says that “management is a skill, it’s not a career path”, and explains how management is removed from the hierarchy.

Everybody is a mixture of individual and group contribution. There’s a set of tasks related to project organization and keeping things going. And usually, people refuse to do it twice in a row, on back-to-back projects, because it’s very much a service job. “My job is to entirely define myself in terms of the productivity that I enable in other people. That’s a very stressful job and it’s hard to measure your own productivity. People say, hey, Jay, you should do it again, and Jay says ‘screw you guys!’.” So we look for some younger sucker to give the job to, who thinks it’s authority within a hierarchy related to decision-making, and then finds out that it’s, oh, working really really hard to make other people more productive. – Reflections of a Video Game Maker

I think the major reason that these ideas have not been put into the dustbin of history is they are too convenient. Thinking of management as a science makes it special. Giving power to managers ensures the status quo. Who wants to rock the boat and say they are adding little value as a manager? If you want to know what is ailing your organization, maybe lack of innovation or over-bureaucratization, then look no further than management. Of course few managers think they are part of the problem. But self-management is possible, if not inevitable.

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