In the second post of a series of three, Mayvin Principal Consultant Tony Nicholls sets out the opening chapter for his future book. His aim is to socialise his thinking in order to invite commentary and critique. In his first post, he argued why management needs a stronger focus to counterbalance the decades-old obsession with leadership. In this post, he looks more closely at the primary focus of management practice and why we need it.
Making Change Happen
If we look at what we do as members of organisations, we see that it is to make change happen.
If no change took place then raw material, whether physical, digital or knowledge-based, would not turn into products and services. This is essentially the organisation on strike. In organisations, doing work means changing the current state of affairs into a new state of affairs. So, in essence, all activities in organisations are about making change happen.
Challenging the Business-As-Usual Myth
From here we can debunk a particularly strong myth that permeates leadership and management thinking. This is the existence of activities within our organisations that are ‘business as usual’. Activities that we believe are not changing. To explore this, let’s start with the question:
“Why, in our organisations, do we have people overseeing the work of others?”
Times of change include setting up processes for the first time or changing existing processes. In these times, the answer to this question seems obvious. Decisions need to be made about the shape of the processes to be implemented. They also need to be made about the allocation of resources and capabilities.
In these scenarios, the managers are managing change. Following this argument, once we have a steady state, couldn’t we do away with the managers? If no process design is needed and no resources or capabilities need reallocating, wouldn’t they be sat twiddling their thumbs?
Business-As-Usual and Entropy
For managers to continue to be busy in the absence of any planned change, there must be some other change occurring. More accurately, there must be some other form of disturbance to the steady state that needs a manager to make decisions that helps return things to equilibrium.
Any organisation contains these disturbances. Machines, both mechanical and digital, can break. Humans can also break, but more common will be a whole list of situations that mean there is never any period of steady state. We get sick, we get new jobs and leave, we lack skills when first put in a role and need to develop capabilities, we create workarounds which cause disruption down the line, we make mistakes, we throw our toys out and deliberately throw real or metaphorical spanners into the works, or we simply have a bad day and our productivity slips.
Another form of ‘breakage’ is the natural creep that takes place in human cultures that evolve with changing personnel, changing times, changing perspectives and so on. And then there are the ‘breakages’ that come from outside as customers, political contexts and competitive landscapes challenge the status quo.
All of these machine, human and context-related ‘breakages’ require some form of management to keep the show on the road and optimise the resources and capabilities available on any given day. That’s why we have managers in what we mistakenly believe to be steady-state, business-as-usual areas of our organisations. In the absence of planned change, we rely on managers to counteract the entropy that drives a constant slippage away from the ideal and towards chaos. Business-as-usual management is about constantly tuning the organisation towards, or back to, optimum.
Management is all about Enabling Change
Given this, we see that management and the role of managers is to manage change in all its forms, whether planned or otherwise.
It is worth noting that the management of this change may not sit formally with those with ‘manager’ in their title. There are organisations with self-managing teams, where no one individual carries the formal role of manager. That is not to say management isn’t taking place. It may be distributed amongst the team members. However, the management of change is still necessary and is being carried out.
Leaders as Managers
Looking at the top of the hierarchy, to the ‘Leaders’ of our organisations, let’s also dispel another myth. The myth that their role is primarily about leadership. It plays a part, but their accountabilities primarily lie in managing the resources placed at their disposal. Their role is to organise high-level structures and processes that allow their middle managers to execute the stated strategy. Since every strategy is essentially a plan for change, most of an executive’s time has to be spent gathering intelligence in support of making decisions on how to allocate resources to deliver that change. These are the tasks of management. Therefore, senior people in our organisations are seen to spend precious little time leading, however we might define this collection of activities.
Pulling the Threads Together
In the first post in this series, we saw how a bifurcation between leadership and management has been created. We saw how both are, in practice, entangled in all roles. In this post, we now see that delivering change is the focus of all activity in organisations. This delivery is primarily the focus for management, not leadership. Our conclusion is that, first and foremost, we are all managers. Secondly, enabling change or change management is essentially the focus of management practice.
In his next post, Tony will look at another challenge to the leadership-over-management narrative. This centres on a belief that it is changes in management practice at the top, not the development of better leadership, that allows power and accountability to trickle down into the organisation.