My recent post on how not to manage geeks has sparked a lot of interest and a lot of great comments.
Right now there’s a very interesting debate going on in the comments about the need for structure in small or large organizations. This debate is great because it goes right to the core of the central dilemma of new leadership and employee empowerment.
Here are some of the key arguments that have come up:
Elling writes: I think you’re attacking structures which you can do without in a small company… In a large company there’s a NEED for the structures…
Jeremy writes: I can anticipate some of this need – the need to account for diverse costs accurately and thoroughly, the need to maintain a standard of output for workers in an organized, fair fashion, etc. – but these play to the weaknesses of large organizations. In other words, large organizations SHOULD be at a disadvantage, and the structures we’re proposing tearing out actually add value only in the sense that MegaCorp is inherently inefficient and out of scale with the market.
Numeeja writes: …there is NEVER a ‘NEED’ for self-serving, ‘personal progression over departmental improvement’ style work places and managers.
Thad writes: The place where I work is managed by good people who don’t want to be bureaucratic jerks, but they can’t grasp one simple concept: they are giving me money in exchange for doing something I love–they don’t have to shackle me with schedules and policies to get me to produce! I will be here working my little heart out because *I want to be*. I try to block out the memos and TPS reports and remind myself that those things aren’t really changing what I get to do here, but damn, every time the red tape is thrust in my face it just deflates me and I don’t even feel like trying to design or build something.
Elling writes: If you have 20 people which you want to pull in the same direction, you NEED to have a manager who’s job it will be to try and ensure that the people in the group DO pull in the same direction… On the other hand, I do realize that there ARE idiot-bastard-managers out there. And I’m not defending them.
Cityzenjane writes: …small tech teams in my experience – when left to their own devices do a GREAT job of pulling in the same direction, getting behind technical strategic priorities that they have been part of developing.
First let me say thanks to all who’ve commented. THIS is what blogging is all about – one post sparking many great contributions. I feel lucky to be hosting this dialogue.
But which is it? Do companies need structure or don’t they? Is less management better than more management? Is management a necessary evil or simply evil? :o)
Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist once said:
The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth
and that’s exactly what I think we’re dealing with here. Whenever I’m faced with one of these either-or questions, I try to loook beyond the immediate choice, to see if there might exist an answer that transcends the dilemma and includes both. Can we have both personal freedom and structure at work?
The answer is not only that it can be done, but that many highly succesful companies are actively doing it. The truth is that there needs to be structure for personal freedom to even be possible. But we are talking a different kind of structure. Where the “old” structures are often opaque, rigid and top-down we can instead create new structures that are the exact opposite but perform the same function of coordinating and streamlining people’s efforts. These new structures are transparent, dynamic and participatory.
Companies that have done this include business school case classics like Semco, Oticon, Southwest Airlines and GE Aviation. None of them are doing too shabby (understatement alert), and people are really happy at work there. Herb Kelleher, ex-CEO of Southwest, was once asked how he could maintain control when his employees had so much freedom. His answer is classic:
Control? Never had it. Don’t want it.
I think we can move forward most efficiently if we shift away from choosing between freedom and structure, and work from the assimption that it’s about choosing both and thus creating a new kind of structure.
Let me hit you with one last Niels Bohr quote (Yes I’m a fan, dammit):
How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.