“Workflow” reviewed part V 1/2 – About good management

About the book review

So I gathered you noticed I’m reading this book. It’s called “Workflow: beyond productivity” and has been written by Kourosh Dini. Although what I have been doing with this book can barely be called reviewing. Rather, I have been picking some of these thoughts, these ideas, these concepts as presented in the book in order to apply them to a larger organizational context.

I noticed that a couple of excellent, comprehensive reviews on the book have been published. If you want to know more about the book prior to buying it, I suggest you read those. If on the other hand you are convinced of the value and relevance of the book, and you want to see how some of the ideas in the book can apply to a wider organizational context, it’s a real pleasure to have you here.

I do not intend to scare you away from my blog, but this “review” is likely to be very long and will likely consist of quite a few articles for some time to come. So if this is about the assessment of the relevance of the book, I’m probably not the best placed person to provide you with that information. As I said before, what I’m doing is picking some of the excellent ideas Kourosh offers and expanding them to a wider organizational context.

Why this is V 1/2 and not VI

The reason I’m calling this review V 1/2 and not VI is because I want to touch very quickly on a very interesting idea Kourosh offers. It’s his definition of management.

Management is a system’s regular and iterative maintenance.

Management is a maintenance task

Okay let’s think about that for a second. He defines management as a maintenance task. That definition, which I think is spot on, reverses the entire hierarchical structure that we currently have in our minds about management. This definition follows in the footsteps of some of the great definitions about management and the difference between leadership and management. One such is offered by Stephen Covey in his story about the leader sitting in the tree. The problem is that we have very few leaders and very few really good managers.

Rather than supporting the experts on the ground doing the real work, management appears to often want to rule the organization. However, as Covey pointed out and as Kourosh confirms, management’s role is maintenance. Ensuring that the system works. Ensuring that the experts get to do the work they are best at and being paid for.

Incompetent management leads to waste

If you consider the waste of highly competent, very valuable resources in many organizations because of the fact that the “management”, in terms of ensuring the appropriate maintenance of the system, is not adequately done, it becomes mind blowing. What a waste. And that waste is mainly induced by a system of embedded hierarchical thinking where the manager needs to “make the decision”. But how can someone without the core competencies to understand the subject matter make any decision? There are two options here.

Option 1 – Simplification

Option 1 is a situation in which the experts simplify the underlying reality for the manager to understand it, in order for him to make a decision. There are a couple of important risks related to that, mainly in the translation between the reality and the simplification. It’s entirely possible that management will make the wrong decision because they failed to take in account all the intricacies the reality offers. This is what you see Jeremy Irons do in “Margin Call”, when he says:

“Maybe you could tell me what is going on. And please, speak as you might to a young child. Or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that brought me here; I assure you that.”

The problem is that this is a reductionist attitude. Why do we need to pay experts to deal with complex situations if the decisions will not be taken based on their assessment, but based on their ability to translate that assessment for a group of people that do not have the technical background? It is no longer about the competencies of the individual experts in their chosen field of expertise, but rather about their storytelling ability. An ability which is often sorely lacking, but that’s another story entirely. I don’t think this is the best way.

Option 2 – Support, comparability and alignment

What if we were to more clearly distinguish between leaders on the one hand and managers on the other? What if leaders were to determine the jungle and the path, to paraphrase Covey? What if their role was to point the direction and establish clear guidelines on what constitutes the achievement of a relevant milestone?

A leader should say: this is my vision. This is where I want the organization to go. And we will know when we get there, or even partways, if … which is then followed by clear milestones with SMART indicators attached. The role of management then becomes more clear. A manager is then beholden to:

  • Provide maintenance and support to the experts to realize the road to that vision, including scaffolding that supports the development, the building of that road;
  • Measure progress towards that vision, including making choices based on metrics coming out of the expert teams working on the ground.

Hence, they would be responsible for support, comparability and alignment, as follows:

  • Support: ensuring all systems, structures and methodologies are in place to ensure consistent, optimum performance of the expert teams. Such systems may for example be good recruting, relevant but not too time intensive reporting … and the implementation of project management systems.
  • Comparability: ensuring that all expert teams regularly report as to their progress towards the milestones, on a comparable basis. This can for example be assured by project management reporting, which would be identical or as close to identical as possible across projects;
  • Alignment: based on that reporting received, drawing conclusions on which priorities need to be pursued, in order to reach the vision established by the visionary, the leader, in the most optimal manner. This is about making choices.

With a good core system at the center of this model, it no longer is about “selling” the work you do to your management … proper support leads to better comparability and hence better alignment. It also actually means that “management” is not hierarchically superior to the experts doing the work. Rather, they have a supporting position. Only in that way they can ensure their role: making sure the system keeps functioning day after day, delivering the key results on the way to the achievement of the vision.