Why Do We Need Managers Anyway?

http://www.dilbert.comI’ve been scratching my head lately regarding management, and what is it good for. So I’m probably going to spend some time on the subject in this here blog.

Long time readers of this blog (you poor guys, thanks for sticking with me!) know I’m a fan of Manager Tools. For the last seven years, these guys have been pumping out great advice, and even more important: actionable advice, for managers who want to become more effective. The need for this podcast, and their consulting services is apparent. Wherever you go you’ll find bad  managers. 

Actually, bad or good is not the correct term here – it’s effectiveness. Effective managers improve the effectiveness of their teams, and so the organization benefits. And Manager Tools helps in becoming more effective in the modern organization enterprise structure.

Let’s switch back to agile land for a minute. We know effective agile teams are self-organized. There is no manager role in a scrum team. We also know that this kind of team usually clashes with the rest of the organization.

Yet, assuming that the team is really effective without “proper management”, can we apply these to whole organizations? If most managers are not effective, and are really an obstacle, why do we need them?

What managers do

Here are responsibilities of managers. Responsibilities created by company structure, they can be changed in the structure changes. I don’t include technical responsibilities, like planning or budgeting. While mostly done by managers, they can be done by team  members.

  • Hiring and firing
  • Promoting team members
  • Coaching team members
  • Improve effectiveness
  • Protecting the team
  • Translating for the team
  • Solve conflicts
  • Make decisions

(I probably missed one or ten, but this mostly covers it for now).

Do these activities require a dedicated manager?

Hiring and firing seems like a managerial job. Yet in effective organizations the team is part of the process of interviewing and accepting the new guy/girl. They are also usually passive (sometimes more) players in ejecting him/her out. While these decisions don’t require a manager, organizational structure does. Hiring someone means money transfers. Firing him means legal stuff. The system requires authority of approval. Promotion is an organizational idiom, (in flat organizations, promotions make no sense) but it comes with money perks, so again we need approval authority.

Do teams need managers to improve? Jurgen Appelo thinks not, and I agree. Coaching can be effective, having the expertise. If the manager doesn’t have the knowledge she can’t coach. But she can make sure coaching occurs. This requires authority and follow-up. As we look to improve the performance of the team, the manager can create the conditions where effectiveness improves. The less expert she is, the team members rely on themselves to improve.

Protecting the team may sound patronizing, and as all agile practitioners know, is required. Protection from what? Other parts of the organization. Actually, protection is part of inter-organizational communication. It is more simple (although maybe not as effective) to communicate through small number of managers, rather than to everyone directly.  The manager at this point translates an organizational message to “what does it mean to us”. Anyone can do that – but it requires some recognition in the organization, with organizational know-how.

Finally, decision making and solving conflicts within the team stems directly from authority. Anyone can and does make decision everyday. We don’t need special people for that, yet we gravitate towards certain people that have these skills. We may even call them “leaders”.

So do we need managers?

We talk about managers, and how organizations are easy to manage, because it simplifies management. The word “management” is so engrossing, it’s easy to dump so much into it.

We can reduce the term “managers” to contact points with the rest of the organization. The teams can do the rest, and their effectiveness will probably improve.

Without managers, we’ll have anarchy. Which may not be that bad: Take a look at Fred George’s experience. He calls it “Programmer Anarchy”. It works.

Is anarchy for everyone? Can we get rid of managers altogether? Do we want to?

I’ll wait a posts more to get to that decision.

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