The End of Management

In a bit of personal synchronicity, my partner Sally pointed out that the latest edition of the wonderfully positive Ode magazine (which bills itself as a “community of intelligent optimists”) has an excerpt from Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. It is the same Daniel Pink who does the impassioned voice-over for the 11-minute YouTube video I highlighted in my previous blog piece. With all the handwringing and anger around corporate greed and its consequences (e.g. the BP oil spill and the misadventures of the American financial industry that contributed to our “Great Recession”), it’s nice to be able to report a positive movement happening in the corporate world, still on the periphery and off the radar, perhaps just waiting for the “hundredth monkey” (at least metaphorically) to become a full-blown trend.

Paralleling Riane Eisler’s calling out of the historic transformation underway from hierarchy to partnership in her book, The Chalice and the Blade, Pink frames a generational transformation challenging the continuing efficacy of the concept of “management of human resources”…

My dad’s generation views human beings as human resources. They’re the two-by-fours you need to build your house… For me, it’s a partnership between me and the employees. They’re not resources. They’re partners… Perhaps it’s time to toss the very word “management” onto the linguistic ash heap alongside “icebox” and “horseless carriage”… Its central ethic remains control; its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators. Is management, as it’s currently considered, out of sync with human nature itself?

That’s a really good question! Management was certainly an essential tool of the Industrial Revolution when it at least seemed efficient to view human beings as just one more mechanistic factor contributing to running the emerging factories and the rest of the supply chain that brought the products of mass production to the public. The harnessing and external control of human activity was such a revolutionary innovation (previously only practiced to this degree perhaps in the raising and use of large military forces) that it could in fact have been a very inefficient use of human capability while still giving the captains of industry a huge source of coordinated labor and profit.

Pink rightly calls out “management” as a human-invented technique that may have run its course as part of this generational transition…

We forget sometimes that “management” does not emanate from nature… It’s something that humans invented. As the strategy guru Gary Hamel has observed, management is a technology… that has grown creaky. While some companies have oiled the gears a bit, and plenty more have paid lip service to the same, at its core, management hasn’t changed much in 100 years.

And why, says Pink, has it “grown creaky”…

It presumes that to take action or move forward, we need a prod — that absent a reward or punishment, we’d remain happily and inertly in place. It also presumes that once people do get moving, they need direction — that without a firm and reliable guide, they’d wander. Management still revolves largely around supervision, “if-then” rewards and other forms of control.

And Pink looks at how the concept of management is more broadly applied in our society as…

Not merely how bosses treat us at work, but also how the broader ethos has leeched into schools, families and many other aspects of our lives.

Does the “management of human resources” in the workplace, in our schools and even in the intimate family settings diminish and even belittle what we are capable of as human beings? The solution that Pink sees emerging in the business world is the promotion of autonomy and self-direction…

This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction… A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and, in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout and greater psychological well-being.

As a progressive perhaps “lefty parent” himself, Pink is convinced…

That our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed. And I say that not because I’m a dewy-eyed idealist, but because I’ve been around young children and because my wife and I have three kids of our own. Have you ever seen a 6-month-old or a 1-year-old who’s not curious and self-directed? I haven’t. That’s how we are out of the box. If, at age 14 or 43, we’re passive and inert, that’s not because it’s our nature. It’s because something flipped our default setting.

So creating the enriched environment for fostering the continuation or reemergence of autonomy and self-direction goes well beyond the conventional wisdom of “empowerment” in the workplace, which according to Pink…

Presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees. But that’s not autonomy. That’s just a slightly more civilized form of control.

And Pink makes a critical clarification that autonomy and self-reliance are not about excessive individualism and the failure of a more communitarian ethos…

It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice — which means we can be both autonomous and happily-interdependent with others.

Pink advocates for work environments that leverage the natural power of human autonomy and self-direction, particularly the “Results Only Work Environment” or ROWE…

ROWEs are the brainchild of Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, two former human resources executives at the American retailer Best Buy. ROWE’s principles marry the common sense pragmatism of Ben Franklin to the cage-rattling radicalism of American community organizer Saul Alinsky. In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time—or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it and where they do it is up to them.

You can read the Ode article for an extensive description of an example of implementing ROWE in a business environment. I immediately wonder if we could use some schools set up on a parallel model that we might call “ROLE” (Results Oriented Learning Environment) to unleash the learning process rather than trying to manage it with standardized curriculums, regimented learning environments and ubiquitous testing.

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