Nearly everyone has a story of a boss who was worse than useless, or small nimble teams that apparently self-organized into excellence. The changing nature of work and the failures of past modes of management has brought numerous future-of-work thinkers to question the need for managers at all. In the reflections below, Jeff shares his thoughts on the critical role of management within an organization, and what good management looks like as the nature of work continues to shift.
Things Fall Apart
Why do we need management, anyway? I was reflecting upon poetry and the arts, as they often help me see the essential nature of things. One of my favorite poems is the “Second Coming” by Yeats. Responding to the horrors of WWI, he wrote:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Things do indeed fall apart. And as something gets more complex, it can be harder to hold it together. My car requires a lot more attention than my bike. The center doesn’t naturally hold together. It takes attention and will.
Chaos is its own fuel. Something falls apart, and as it falls apart, it creates confusion that accelerates the destruction. Imagine if I didn’t know how a car works. What happens when I am driving and start losing power? Perhaps I reflect that gas is refined from oil, and that gas and oil are really the same thing, so I put oil in the gas tank. The car stops working completely. Now I am really confused. I tried to fix it, and it got worse. I then reflect that perhaps putting 10W-40 in the gas tank may not have been the right answer. I remember that detergents disintegrate oil, so I pour a box of Tide into the gas tank. My situation is becoming worse, and my confusion is growing as a result. It seems like a silly analogy, but if you reflect, this is nature of things falling apart: we don’t understand our limitations, we don’t understand the nature of our reality, and we act in a way to bring more chaos and confusion to an already bad situation.
Beware the Entropist
Entropy is a lack of order or predictability. It is when something declines into disorder. When a person causes disorder (i.e. chaos) through their words or actions, I call them an “entropist.” An entropist creates disorder and chaos. They create confusion. As we have recently seen, there are times when this is purposeful: chaos is the goal. But just as confusion begets entropy, confused people often unintentionally become entropists when their intent is to improve their reality.
I think this is why we are so dissatisfied with managers. Managers are supposed to create order. They are supposed to hold the center. Instead they are increasingly becoming entropists. In their own confusion they create confusion in others. They take value and diminish it. And it is easy for all of us, watching the well intentioned entropist at work, to associate bad managers with management being bad.
Enter the Syntropist
Let’s then forget about managers for a minute and think about the opposite of an entropist: a syntropist. A syntropist turns chaos into order. They do this by bringing clarity where there was confusion.
My car starts sputtering and losing power. The syntropist sees my confusion. They clarify that the car needs gas, not oil. They explain to me why oil and gas are different, and why that difference is important. I no longer respond to entropy with confusion. I am able to fix my problem now, and in the future, because I have clarity.
Out with Managers! In with… Managers 2.0?
When we discard management we are likely discarding entropists. At the very least we are reducing the power for entropist to bring their confusion to other people. But things still fall apart. The center cannot hold. How will we bring clarity to the inevitable chaos?
Some insist that new systems will create order. Bad management isn’t the people or the nature of things. It is the very idea of management itself. People are evolving into higher order states of consciousness and awareness, and our operating principles need to reflect that.
Others insist that it is just about having better people. The right people will create order by the nature of who they are. The right people will self-coordinate. Thus neither management nor a suitable replacement are needed. This is the thinking behind “flat organizations.”
I don’t think people as a whole are evolving higher levels of consciousness. I think we aren’t as far from our feral ancestors as we like to believe. We are still primarily emotional beings using our higher level cognitive processes to excuse our bad decisions. Yes, we create amazing technologies. But we also use those technologies to blow ourselves up. We have fancy conversations but chose to fight or flee with surprising speed.
And while I agree that people who share similar beliefs and capabilities can coordinate without the need for a third person clarifying, eventually scale creates problems that can’t be solved through self-coordination. People are people, and eventually too many nodes in the network leads to noise and confusion.
I wonder if, in our zeal to get rid of the value destroyers, to be rid of the entropists, we are really just setting ourselves up for more chaos. Idealism so often leads to a worse version of the thing that the ideal was supposed to overcome. “People unite” often turns into cultural conflagration.
So How Do We Manage?
Evolution requires positive momentum, and I would never advocate for moving back to the days of the “command and control manager.” Those days are either gone or quickly disappearing, and nobody could be happier about that than me. I hate that system.
But I don’t think we evolve by ignoring reality. Clarity is more precious than ever. If we want our ever-more complicated machines to hold together and operate well, we can’t have well intentioned people putting oil in the gas tank. We need to help people who are confused see a better way, so that they don’t need the help of clarification in the future. This is how we get the center to hold.
We need people who are good at clarifying to spend more time doing just that. We need to appropriately value their work, and give them the attention, structure and time to do more of what they are good at. These people won’t be “managers” as we commonly know that term. They won’t command access to information, capital and political favor. They won’t control people in any conventional way. They won’t ever, ever be entropists. They will be syntropists. They will fight the inevitable and increasing chaos and disorder of our scale, and bring clarity and evolution to the people they help.
Managers are yesterday’s news. But it seems that we might be ignoring reality and hoping that technology and people will avoid developing a more complex version of yesterday’s entropy.
If you want to read more about how we think about the fundamental responsibilities of syntropic clarity management, read about the enterprise clarity model here.
Who is the best manager you ever had? What did they do?
Who is the worst manager you ever had? What did they do?
List your assumptions about management. What it is, why it’s necessary or unnecessary, etc.
Look at the list. How many of these assumptions are rooted in your personal experience of management, good and bad?
- How many of the assumptions are rooted in how you relate to authority more generally?