“First, let’s fire all the managers” said Gary Hamel almost seven years ago in Harvard Business Review. “Think of the countless hours that team leaders, department heads, and vice presidents devote to supervising the work of others.”
Today, we believe that the problem in most organizations isn’t simply that management is inefficient, it’s that the role and purpose of a “manager” haven’t kept pace with what’s needed.
For almost 100 years, management has been associated with the five basic functions outlined by management theorist Henri Fayol: planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling.
These have become the default dimensions of a manager. But they relate to pursuing a fixed target in a stable landscape. Take away the stability of the landscape, and one needs to start thinking about the fluidity of the target. This is what’s happening today, and managers must move away from the friendly confines of these five tasks. To help organizations meet today’s challenges, managers must move from:
Directive to instructive: When robots driven by artificial intelligence (AI) do more tasks like finish construction or help legal professionals more efficiently manage invoices, there will be no need for a supervisor to direct people doing such work. This is already happening in many industries — workers are being replaced with robots, especially for work that is more manual than mental, more repetitive than creative.
What will be needed from managers is to think differently about the future in order to shape the impact AI will have on their industry. This means spending more time exploring the implications of AI, helping others extend their own frontiers of knowledge, and learning through experimentation to develop new practices.
Jack Ma, co-founder of the Alibaba Group in China, recently said, “Everything we teach should be different from machines. If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now we will be in trouble.” Ma is referring to education in the broadest sense, but his point is spot on. Learning, not knowledge, will power organizations into the future; and the central champion of learning should be the manager.
Restrictive to expansive: Too many managers micromanage. They don’t delegate or let direct reports make decisions, and they needlessly monitor other people’s work. This tendency restricts employees’ ability to develop their thinking and decision making — exactly what is needed to help organizations remain competitive.
Managers today need to draw out everyone’s best thinking. This means encouraging people to learn about competitors old and new, and to think about the ways in which the marketplace is unfolding.
Exclusive to inclusive: Too many managers believe they are smart enough to make all the decisions without the aid of anyone else. To them, the proverbial buck always stops at their desks. Yet, it has been our experience that when facing new situations, the best managers create leadership circles, or groups of peers from across the firm, to gain more perspective about problems and solutions.
Managers need to be bringing a diverse set of thinking styles to bear on the challenges they face. Truly breakaway thinking gets its spark from the playful experimentation of many people exchanging their views, integrating their experiences, and imagining different futures.
Repetitive to innovative: Managers often encourage predictability — they want things nailed down, systems in place, and existing performance measures high. That way, the operation can be fully justifiable, one that runs the same way year in and out. The problem with this mode is it leads managers to focus only on what they know — on perpetuating the status quo — at the expense of what is possible.
Organizations need managers to think much more about innovating beyond the status quo – and not just in the face of challenges. Idris Mootee, CEO of Idea Couture Inc., could not have said it better: “When a company is expanding, when a manager starts saying ‘our firm is doing great’, or when a business is featured on the cover of a national magazine – that’s when it’s time to start thinking. When companies are under the gun and things are falling apart, it is not hard to find compelling reasons to change. Companies need to learn that their successes should not distract them from innovation. The best time to innovate is all the time.”
Problem solver to challenger: Solving problems is never a substitute for growing a business. Many managers have told us that their number one job is “putting out fires,” fixing the problems that have naturally arisen from operating the business. We don’t think that should be the only job of today’s manager. Rather, the role calls for finding better ways to operate the firm — by challenging people to discover new and better ways to grow, and by reimagining the best of what’s been done before. This requires practicing more reflection — to understand what challenges to pursue, and how one tends to think about and respond to those challenges.
Employer to entrepreneur: Many jobs devolve into trying to please one’s supervisor. The emphasis on customers, competitors, innovations, marketplace trends, and organizational performance morphs too easily into what the manager wants done today — and how he or she wants it done. Anyone who has worked for “a boss” probably knows the feeling.
The job of a manager must be permanently recast from an employer to an entrepreneur. Being entrepreneurial is a mode of thinking, one that can help us see things we normally overlook and do things we normally avoid. Thinking like an entrepreneur simply means to expand your perception and increase your action — both of which are important for finding new gateways for development. And this would make organizations more future facing — more vibrant, alert, playful — and open to the perpetual novelty it brings.
We want managers to become truly human again: to be people who love to learn and love to teach, who liberate and innovate, who include others in the process of thinking imaginatively, and who challenge everyone around them to create a better business and a better world. This will ensure that organizations do more than simply update old ways of doing things with new technology, and find ways to do entirely new things going forward.
Joseph Pistrui is Professor of Entrepreneurial Management at IE Business School in Madrid. He also leads the global Nextsensing Project.