Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Management Is A Technology That Needs Upgrading

So much of how we operate at work is settled on because that's how we've always done it. In the past few weeks I've had a heavy hand in shaping a team, which is why I've been reflecting on the topic. I don't yet know the best way to build a team, but what I do know is that in most cases, conventional wisdom is totally wack.

Rather than prescribing an "ideal" way to operate a team, I think different situations require teams with radically different operating systems (e.g., the way a team focused on responding to a natural disaster should work and feel is likely much different than how a team staging a play should work and feel). That said, corporate environments tend to have a few standard features, that don't often make sense for today's operating environment. Here are a few examples:

Most teams I've been on are obsessed with organization charts, even though they don't say much. Org charts, after all, leave out mission / purpose, the roles on the team, the relationship across organizational units, and norms on how decisions are made. People seem to make them just because they think they're supposed to. 

In my experience, org charts are helpful only for identifying who gets to resolve disputes during a turf war. I'd add, that org charts are a calling card of a hierarchical bureaucracy (a form of organization designed to avoid change), which is precisely the opposite of what today's operating environment requires. If you have a manager that insists on having an organization chart for the sake only knowing "who reports to who" - that's trouble.

Most status meetings I've been to are a colossal waste of time. Usually managers have them for the sole purpose of making it easier to report to their boss, who is invariably an executive. If a team's manager is having a meeting for the sole purpose of checking on work, they are probably a terrible manager - a manager should know that already.

I'm not suggesting that teams shouldn't meet. What I am suggesting is that they mostly likely need to meet for reasons other than reporting on progress - like coordinating complex tasks, raising issues, or sharing learnings. If you have a manager that holds a "status meeting" and the manager does most of the talking, or it's basically a sequence of 1-1 interactions between the manager and each direct report - that's trouble.

Lots of teams I've been on, treat interns and / or junior staffers like garbage. This is not only frustrating to the intern and a crummy thing to do to another human, it's a waste of talent.

To me, how teams treat the lowest colleague on the totem pole is a measure of that team's morality and their effectiveness. After all, if the way a manager under-utilized someone's talent solely because they're the youngest, newest, or lowest paid - it probably means they're not good at utilizing anyone's talent. If you're on a team that treats interns poorly - that's trouble.

I don't mean this post, entirely, to rib poorly run teams or incompetent managers. I've actually been lucky to be on more than my fair share of highly effective teams with effective managers. What I'm suggesting is much more radical. I'm suggesting that everything about how today's teams are built and how they operate should be questioned. So much of how organizations operate today is solely because "we've always done it that way".

To me, management is just like a technology. Computers are a technology for manipulating information. Rockets are a technology for traveling to space. Management, similarly, is a technology for coordinating a group of people toward a common goal.

Most organizations no longer use typewriters, horses & buggies, or quills & ink. Consequently, I think it's absolutely ludicrous that most organizations still use management practices that were pioneered almost a century ago. It's time to think more deeply about the technology of management.

The way I think of building teams and organizations is how I understand genes. In a living organism, some genes control eye color, some control height, and some control sex. Depending on how those genes are combined, you get a different kind of organism.

I think of teams the same way. Organizations have "genes" too, but in management we call them "norms". Some norms control size of the team, some control communication practices, some control conflict resolution, and some control how feedback is delivered, and so on. Depending on the goal and context, different teams need different genes.

Most managers act as if the norms of teams can't be changed - they just take what they've seen before and replicate it. That's a tragic mistake that's usually bad for the company, bad for the team, and bad for customers.