Both of which, at some level, are saying the same things.
Think about how a university department organizes itself. There are professors at various ranks, who pretty much just do whatever the heck they want. Then there’s a department chairperson who, more often than not, got suckered into the role. The chairperson of the department might call meetings and adjudicate who teaches what class, but she certainly doesn’t tell the other professors what research to do, or when to hold office hours, or what to write or think.
That’s the way it has to work in a knowledge organization. You don’t build a startup with one big gigantic brain on the top, and a bunch of lesser brains obeying orders down below. You try to get everyone to have a gigantic brain in their area, and you provide a minimum amount of administrative support to keep them humming along.
This is my view of management as administration—as a service corps that helps the talented individuals that build and sell products do their jobs better. Attempting to see management as the ultimate decision makers demotivates the smart people in the organization who, without the authority to do what they know is right, will grow frustrated and leave. And if this happens, you won’t notice it, but you’ll be left with a bunch of yes-men, who don’t particularly care (or know) how things should work, and the company will only have one brain – the CEO’s. See what I mean about “it doesn’t scale?”
And yes, you’re right, Steve Jobs didn’t manage this way. He was a dictatorial, autocratic asshole who ruled by fiat and fear. Maybe he made great products this way. But you? You are not Steve Jobs. You are not better at design than everyone in your company. You are not better at programming than every engineer in your company. You are not better at sales than every salesperson in the company.
It is not, as it turns out, necessary to be a micromanaging psychopath with narcissistic personality disorder (or even to pretend to be one) if you just hire smart people and give them real authority. The saddest thing about the Steve Jobs hagiography is all the young “incubator twerps” strutting around Mountain View deliberately cultivating their worst personality traits because they imagine that’s what made Steve Jobs a design genius. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc, young twerp. Maybe try wearing a black turtleneck too.
For every Steve Jobs, there are a thousand leaders who learned to hire smart people and let them build great things in a nurturing environment of empowerment and it was AWESOME. That doesn’t mean lowering your standards. It doesn’t mean letting people do bad work. It means hiring smart people who get things done—and then getting the hell out of the way.
Can we have companies without managers, including top management? Sounds unthinkable. But one such company, Morning Star, is the subject of a cover story by Gary Hamel in a recent issue of HBR. The idea is not as crazy as it sounds. There has been a general movement toward flatter companies. Morning Star carries the process to its logical extreme. We have very flat organisations in academia; investment banks have a few layers; manufacturing tends to be more layered. Morning Star is a manufacturing company that has abolished layers. The company works entirely through self-directed mission statements and objectives and peer reviews.And it has delivered performance for several years now.
Can we extend this to larger organisations? Will it work for complex operations such as aircraft manufacturing? Hamel answers in the affirmative. My point would be that it is not necessary to replicate Morning Star in full. It is the underlying principle that is important: abandon the notion that decision-making is the privilege of a few at the top and involve more people in decision-making. A Brazilian firm, Semco, has done that. It does have managers but the managers are evaluated by their subordinates!