Management is Mostly an Impossible Problem

Management as conceived in the early 20th century -- keeping trained people productive and working hard -- was mostly a case of clear instructions and carrot-and-stick motivation. It was a solvable problem, even if it made workers miserable. Today, that kind of work is increasingly done by robots. People management as conceived in the early 21st century -- keeping creative people "engaged" and working smart -- is mostly an impossible problem. In managing high-autonomy creative people in an opt-in environment, governed by exit over voice, you don't manage talent so much as you manage entries and exits.

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"Management" in the 21st century, animated gif by Venkat

1/ Today, 90% of creative-class people-management problems aren't so much make-work/bullshit as they are impossible problems

2/ Example: making 2 talented people on your team, who fundamentally hate each other due to a trust fallout, get along anyway and "be professional"

3/ Managers try to "solve" these problems because TINA: there is no alternative. Not because they know of good solutions.

4/ These problems are TINA because the people involved need the job/money and have to stay on and "make it work," even if very, very badly.

5/ Managers get props for trying hard and doing better than utter, miserable failure, not for producing spectacular, elegant solutions

6/ But the moment there is an alternative, and it is picked, it becomes clear how godawful the "best" previous solution really was

7/ About 90% of the time, the "alternative" is for somebody to make an exit, removing the impossible problem altogether.

8/ Over last 400 yrs, such exit options have proliferated. Serfs for example, had a once-in-3-generations chance to exit a bad work situation by revolt

9/ Today, you're likely to have 10-13 jobs/3-4 careers in a lifetime. And 4-5 project-level exit opportunities within each job

10/ We've gone from 0.3 exits/lifetime to something like 30-40. 100x. Each exit "solves" an impossible management problem and improves things at least for one party

11/ Managers are really stewards of pent-up emotional baggage and containers of pending explosions between stress-relieving entry and exit events

12/ Unfortunately, exit options MOST available to the MOST critical linchpin people with high demand elsewhere

13/ This means an exit often "solves" a critical people-problem by creating a new "talent" problem. Deadwood that won't be missed won't leave voluntarily.

14/ But net, the shift to an exit-centric way of optimizing net allocation of talent, at all levels from workgroup to global economy, is a good thing

15/ When work increasingly is about creative people finding roles where they can be engaged and generative, exit-prevention based management (detention over retention) is disastrous

16/ One reason I have an issue with the mercenary versus missionary ideological schism in Silicon Valley is that it makes cultivation of exit options seem fundamentally suspect

17/ "The free market allocates things efficiently","labor immobility through cargo-cult loyalty to missions is a good thing"

18/ "We want you to believe in our world-changing mission", "here are stock options to make it hard to form that belief honestly"

19/ This deep-seated hypocrisy is "resolved" via hating on people who try to keep exit options viable and labeling them cynical, disloyal, and selfish "mercenaries."

20/ And through a widespread theatrical culture of "pretending to care, pretending to agree"  mask-wearing at work

21/ The most revealing attitude perhaps, is the dislike of lifestyle business types who participate profitably in the digital future without paying lip service to "missionary" culture

22/ Missionary leaders see the very existence of lifestyle business types as a threat, because they represent viable alternatives to becoming "true believers" in some mission

23/ In this environment the definition of a good manager has changed. Managing entries and exits, and mitigating "missionary hypocrisy" are now the key skills.

24/ With high-autonomy self-directed creatives operating in agile teams, there is less direct management to do. Hiring/letting go/horse-trading are obviously critical skills

25/ For mitigating "missionary hypocrisy," the core management skill in fact lies in what Kim Malone Scott calls radical candor: caring personally and confronting directly [when problems arise]

26/ Radical candor mitigates missionary hypocrisy by investing in relationships in honest ways rather than trying to inspire theatrical loyalty to abstract missions

27/ It brings to the workplace the central management idea of the military: soldiers fight out of loyalty to their unit buddies, not out of abstract patriotism

28/ It encourages people to stay not by making them feel guilty/disloyal for cultivating exit options, but by creating valued personal relationships.

29/ When done right, managers can feel as comfortable with employees cultivating exit options as they do with employees buying health insurance

30/ Those exit options are there in case a future impossible problem needs to be solved, or if somebody truly feels the urge to explore a new path

31/ While missionary leadership is great for inspiring people to participate in ambition endeavors, when used as a detention/false consciousness defense against exit, it ultimately fails

32/ What works is smart people freely staying because they want to, and because they care about personal relationships at work as much as missions

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