Is it possible that almost everything about classic management advice is wrong?

We’ve talked about holacracy before, but it’s gaining a little bit of steam — specifically in areas like Silicon Valley and Seattle that are potentially a bit more forward-thinking as far as corporate structure goes. There’s a long, really good article in First Round about how Medium’s culture is embracing holacracy, and while there are many notable quotes within it, here’s one near the top that got me thinking:

“Management perspective looks at reports as resources — like how can you get the maximum value out of this person,” Stirman says. “But when I think resources, I think like natural gas or coal mines. Thinking about a person’s life that way just seemed really dehumanizing.”

That is kind of an interesting thought — to view people as a resource towards the end of making a better product or selling more of something, or however you want to construe it. Ultimately, though, I agree with the speaker (Jason Stirman of Medium): it is a bit dehumanizing.

Here’s another quote, also from Stirman, a little bit down in the First Round article:

“Classic management advice, and all my mentors told me that insulating your team from things so they won’t worry will make them more productive and happier,” he says. “But they just got angry, and confused, and disconnected. I was constantly censoring all this information and they were way happier when they knew everything.”

Now I started thinking a little bit more. Go through some of the aspects of what might be called “classic management advice:” I mean things like keep a safe friendship distance, ask about roadblocks to progress, weekly (or daily) meeting check-ins, fair rewards, shield them from unnecessary information, etc.

Doesn’t it seem like almost all of that is wrong?

It does to me, honestly — as generations change, it does feel like elements such as empathy, humility, coaching and strong communication will become more important in the development of effective managers.

You can argue that management theory is outdated, as has been argued here, here, here and here — among many other places.

I’ve read somewhere before — although I can’t locate it at this exact moment — that some of the most popular managerial books of all-time are from the first half of the 1900s (i.e. basically before WW2). That doesn’t surprise me, per se. Most things from this list, for example, aren’t from any later than 1998-2000. If you just take into account the advent of Google + social media after that date — not to mention the increased importance of global business and the recession — almost everything is different from even 2000 as opposed to now, and yet there aren’t many more relevant books in the interim. You could argue that a lot of the new “business theory” books are about time management and/or having it all — like Sheryl Sandberg’s stuff, for example — because the new true business challenge is finding time when you’re so busy (cue “Smart Simplicity” or “Essentialism”).

As the generations shift, though, management theory needs to be scrapped. I’m not entirely sure holacracy is the thing, because holacracy rips away so much context — in that people are so comfortable with the idea that “everyone has a boss” — that you need really smart, forward-thinking people in order to embrace it, and I don’t know how many of those are out there in the working world.

When people start getting in bed with new systems, they can sometimes seem like a fad. The point is, with any type of organizational structure, you need to choose the concept that best fits the people you have. That’s what sport coaches do, for example: if you have a strong-armed QB and a bunch of super-fast WRs, you’re going to throw the ball downfield a lot, right? You’re not necessarily going to use a fullback on every play as the ball carrier, because that system (how you generate output) doesn’t match your personnel (your people). It’s the same with your employees and your work system, although football offenses can be changed week-to-week, and organizational changes can take a lot longer, surely. Point is, though: there’s no “one-size-fits-all” for organizations, or for people. Everyone is out there trying to find their best fit. That’s part of the chase and challenge of life.

It is interesting how drastically the shift is potentially going to be from “classical management theory” to what orgs need now — I’m not saying it’ll be something like “the end of hierarchy,” but almost everything above is wrong. It doesn’t reflect how humans actually think and learn and feel rewarded about things. At all.

So a change is coming — and this shift could be a huge strategic advantage possibility for companies in certain industries. It’s less about ideas around simply employee engagement, and more about ideas around the entire picture of an organization’s parts fitting together.

Consider another quote from Stirman:

“We’ve already learned a lot, and I’m so glad we’re experimenting,” Stirman says. “No one knows the future, but now when I hear about the way things should be done, or someone saying ‘here’s how it’s always been done,’ or any Management 101, I’m like ‘screw that.’ We may be doing things differently just to be different sometimes, but it’s also allowed us to embrace so many new things.”

Sometimes I honestly think the singular expression “… that’s how it’s always been done…” is the most damaging thing to business ever.



Ted Bauer


  1. It sounds like you have some interesting ideas, but what’s your point?

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