The historical existence of several layers of management in any organization may be related to its size. In a command and control firm of some size, managers ensure that objectives are declared, and then check what is going on from people who are doing the work. They absorb the information of the feedback loop and pass it on upwards. They asses the efficacy and effectiveness of the tasks and assign a reward. Forgive me the caricature of this ‘managerial picture’.
As channels of communication inside the firm have become multi-centric, not just top down and up again, communication is digitalised, and the inter-dependence of groups within the company becomes something almost impossible to represent in an organizational chart, ‘management’, as a function, and as boxes in that organizational chart, start looking redundant. Today, much more than just a few years ago, it is possible to have groups of individuals in the organization teaming up, perfectly capable to do jobs, with no direct command and control. Effectively they could be/are self-managed, and populated by self-assigned people. Middle management starts looking superfluous, amongst other things, because it’s less and less clear what ‘middle’ means, other than perhaps an ‘information traffic control hub’ (and then the manager being an ‘information traffic warden’)
The self-management train has left the station but it’s not short of challenges on the journey ahead. For starters, we don’t have good maps and toolkits. All management, organization and leadership development, and other ‘HR’ navigation tools, were created at a time when the business environment was more linear, the world outside the firm much more predictable and the division of labour inside in need of a strict and efficient top down, command and control information system.
Responsible for these old toolkits were the Academia and the Big Consulting Companies, pretty much the same people who now predicate a rethinking, or a revolution, or even the death of management. They have a great track record in teaching how to manage an organization, but hardly any, how to deal with an organism. The modern firm is a social organism. We have very few good toolkits, and the good ones won’t pass the paternity test of Academia or Big Consulting. Management education continues to de-educate with old toolkits.
One of the main problems of the self-management train is that, in many cases, self-management may be imposed in the firm as a fashion, mantra or copycat of another firm where it seems to work. Get ready for some shocks when companies want to be a version of Zappos. However, the direction is inexorable and I strongly recommend at least some level of experimentation in your organization. The sky will not fall. The potential is enormous.
Although people are hearing the self-management music, many of those same people become very confused. For example, ‘self-management’ has zero to do with ‘leaderless’. Any social (animal) grouping will have leaders, if not formally implanted, emergent. Self-management requires different leadership.
One year ago, my team and I started the formal work that we call ‘Building Remarkable Organizations’. One of the ten ‘Lego pieces’ of the building is the self-management progression. Let me share my number one rule: since self-management is a ‘when’ question, not an ‘if’ question, eyes closing or head in the sand are not good strategies. It’s time to understand the itinerary of that train so that one can figure out at which stations it may be possible to catch it. It does not have to be the next one.