What are Managers for? (one more time)

Despite the ongoing professionalisation of ‘management’ as a distinct line of work, some questions remain too often unanswered.

A key one is ‘What IS the main task for any manager?’

If we wind back the clock to the 1950′s and 60′s we find that a wealth of research was going on to answer this problem, even though American industry and society appeared to still be riding the crest of a wave. Amongst the researchers was William B. Given, who was President of American Brake Shoe Corporation. ¬†Note that Given was not simply a practitioner, but also a graduate of Yale and MIT.

Given’s book Bottom-up Management: People Working Together published in 1949, was well ahead of its time. ¬†Peter Drucker cited Given’s book in his¬†The Practice of Management (1954).¬†And it was following a visit to American Brake Shoe that a business school student championed the refreshingly pointed term ‘Bottom-up Management’ to a wider audience.

According to Given, a good manager had to be a team player; yet like the captain of a sports team -not necessarily the best player- ¬†he had to be a leader; and also to exert a moral influence. ¬†Beyond the formal delegation of authority that was normal in the 40′s, he argued that each manager should deliberately pass elements of his own responsibility for decision-making down the chain, calling it ‘progressive decentralization’.

In both practice and in print Given pressed for personal freedom to be passed on to superintendent staff, ‘-to venture along new and untried paths; freedom to fight back if their ideas or plans are attacked by superirors; freedom to take calculated risks; freedom to fail’¬†- and according to the brothers Hopper (in their brilliant book ‘The Puritan Gift’ detailing the rise, and decline of Puritan values in North American enterprise) this is the genesis in print of ‘Bottom-up’ which today is a term given (sic) too little credit.

Oh how I wish more of today’s business school teachings took account of this strand of thinking…yet the concept that ‘Managers know what is to be done; and how’ persists in splendid isolation, and so is well beyond its use-by date. ¬†Of course the two are polar, and the truth in any situation will lie in experimentation and establishing a reasonable balance between the two.

Hence my plea to managers, their directors and (long-suffering) staffs, to practice both top-down and bottom-up patterns, according to what works well.  A little open-minded experimentation will quickly prove the worth of the blend, and results will follow.


Rock, Paper.

I remember that as small children we never played ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ -simply because we’d never heard of it. This was the 1960′s, see, when TV showed grainy pictures in black and white and broadcasts were made only for a short part of the day; probbaly these things combined to slow the impact of US culture on British kids.

Now we didn’t know (or care) that those things were holding us back, and simply played with the toys that came to hand. However we grew up to echoes of parental coaxing “If you ever want to BE something, you have to work harder!”
And naturally we didn’t reconsider that line…we accepted the received wisdom or fatalism of the age,
the ‘shit happens’ school of thought, where you either -A- tried your hardest, and that might (only ‘might’) be enough; or -B- you would fail.

But across the Pond, one rebellious American professor was already famous for asking ‘Wwhy can’t we do things differently?’ and coming up with surprising and effective answers…his name was Russell Ackoff, and years later he wrote of a third way (no, not political rhetoric, but a different worldview of problems). In ‘The Art of Problem Solving’, Ackoff argued for a distinct third approach to problems, not to attempt to merely reduce them and settle for an fair fix; but to Dissolve or wholly remove them.

His third way was a powerfully different approach, every bit as radical as yet-unseen new products like colour TV; Doctor Who with a detailed plot and dialogue; or personal computers would have been to the ignorant, happy urchins of a Cheshire town. Whilst we would have welcomed more and better telly, Ackoff’s legacy has since expanded our take on life; instead of playing ‘Rock, Paper’ we now have three options -and the Scissors wins!

Los Angeles and London

On a recent trip to the USA I was delighted to find that the airport shuttle bus from LA International to the Van Nuys bus terminal up in the northern suburbs, worked rather well, coping better (-than I would have done in a rental car) with the immense rush hour traffic, which was frequently at a standstill well into the endless warm evening.

The congestion on the somewhat optimistically named ‘Freeways’ is a titanic struggle between the daily travelling habits of x millions and the bottleneck of road capacity. Yes, even California-size motorways get clogged by the diurnal flow. And although the state of California piolted and still reserves ‘High Occupancy’ lanes for vehicles travelling with more than 1 occupant has helped, the dance of countless US-built, Japanese and foreign cars that I observed was at least twice a day more a still life than a well-choreographed Tango.

Having witnessed this, I am now walking about in the UK’s largest city, and although I see bursts of stopped traffic, sometimes appear to be gridlocked, however the London traffic jam is considerably smaller…perhaps we will collectively awake to the ‘stalled city’ forecast that this comparison invites: and act to avoid the huge cost to society that having millions of cars frozen in their orbit around a city imposes on the lifestyles of its citizens, the environment -not to mention the opportunity cost of their being unavailable for some hours per day?