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Minimalist Management -- When Less is More

Editor's Note: Ross Smith has worked in every corner of the software industry for over 20 years and is currently a Director of Test at Microsoft. You can read his M-Prize-winning STORY Organizational Trust: 42projects.

In 1855, Robert Browning published a poem about the Italian Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto, introducing the term "less is more." The phrase was adopted by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to describe minimalism as an "aesthetic tactic of arranging the numerous necessary components of a building to create an impression of extreme simplicity, by enlisting every element and detail to serve multiple visual and functional purposes (such as designing a floor to also serve as the radiator, or a massive fireplace to also house the bathroom)."

A few weeks ago, a manager I know said something great as we discussed his influence on his team's culture. He quipped, "I need to work on adding less value." This could be one of the greatest aspirations for the future of management ever articulated, and the perfect slogan for management 2.0. Call it "minimalistic management." It takes a confident leader to recognize that the natural tendency to dive in and offer an opinion, to justify their existence by "adding value" with their "leadership" actually disrupts, confuses, and derails the team, rather than helps. While managers may feel these actions and behaviors are valuable, gratifying, and serve the organizational goals, "the managed" may not see it the same way.

Less can truly be more. How many employees do you know who are asking for more management?

The hardest part of minimalism is knowing when you're finished--whether you're building a house, making a painting, or offering feedback to an associate. The most difficult task for a manager is to step back, trust, and refrain from helping and giving guidance to the team. Dwight D. Eisenhower got it exactly right: "Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it."

What does that mean for managers today? Perhaps we should spend more time holding up mirrors and guardrails for the team, rather than directing, micro-managing, and "adding value." Instead, managers might first try trusting their people and experimenting with increased autonomy. As employees gain confidence and traction, and those training wheels start to come off, so do the manacles of "direct supervision." Whether those shackles take the form of process, metrics, "feedback," or status reports, minimalist management can liberate the "supervised" and supervisor alike and unlock unheralded levels of contribution.

On the MiX, there are dozens of examples of stories, hacks, and studies illustrating the inverse relationship between "management" and genuine accomplishment:

  • Demolish Management (hack): "The option for an organisation in this era of rapid change combined with the relentlessly higher expectations of end-users, is to disestablish leadership and management positions, decentralising and de-layering the organisation. Management could be reduced to only those positions that oversee functions such as the finance and human resources (if the latter is not managed by the teams). Leadership could be distributed throughout the teams for them to collaboratively manage as they choose. By reducing the desire to control, with the absence of controllers, and with collaborative direction setting open to everybody within and across teams, creativity and entrepreneurial talent will be unleashed and organisational buy-in will increase."
  • Trust is a Business Asset of Value (hack): "There is evidence that a high-trust organisation would expend less resource "managing" staff than would a low-trust organisation. An element of self-management develops."
  • In Matchfinder.com, Raina Ameer suggests a minimalist approach: "Research has shown that command/control management is not the most effective way to lead a project team. Employees are potentially more motivated when working in teams than when working alone. One reason for this is the idea that people feel more accountable to fellow team members who monitor performance more closely than a traditional supervisor."
  • In his hack, 2011 and we are still sitting in traffic? Chris Barber touches on a similar vein: "For managers, the ability to trust employees to be doing their jobs, while out of sight, will be something new and it will require a thorough analysis of task identity, task interdependence and appropriate two-way communication policies. For employees, the characteristic of a household will vary widely. Consideration will need to be given to factors such as interruptions associated with children in the household and the size and layout of the household itself. In general, financial arrangements such as the cost of a providing broadband access to a residential address, the consistency of technology, the lack of social contact and the ability for an employee to bond with an organization will require careful planning."
  • In Nobody's As Smart As Everybody: Unleashing the Quiet Genius Inside the Organization, Jim Lavoie says, "It's not the leader's job to think up all the great ideas or to have all the answers--but to cultivate the motivation and channels for the "quiet genius" and collective brilliance of the organization to emerge and develop * The process is as important as the outcome One of the ancillary benefits of the idea market is that it provokes everyone in the company to think (on a daily basis) about how to grow the company--and shifts the balance of work toward meaningful value-creation."
  • In How to Tell if You are a Natural Leader, Gary Hamel says, "Think about your role at work. Now assume for a moment that you no longer have any positional authority--you're not a project leader, a department head or vice president. There's no title on your business card and you have no direct reports. Assume further that you have no way of penalizing those who refuse to do your bidding--you can't fire them or cut their pay. Given this, how much could you get done in your organization? How much of a leader would you be if you no longer held even a tiny, tarnished scepter of bureaucratic power?"

Minimalist artists reduce their work to the smallest number of colors, values, shapes, lines, and textures. In 1929, Ukranian artist David Burlyuk, in the catalog introduction for an exhibition of John Graham's paintings at the Dudensing Gallery in New York, wrote "Minimalism derives its name from the minimum of operating means."

Can managers minimize operating means? Can managers--in the words of Mies van der Rohe--create an impression of extreme simplicity?

In the creative world, minimalism was a reaction against the formal overkill and pretentiousness of other forms of art. Perhaps the idea of minimalism in management, as a reaction to formal overkill and pretentiousness of conventional management is worthy of consideration?

Add less value. The beauty and elegance is in the austerity.

Or, to take a liberty with one of the great minimalist minds, Thoreau:

"That [management] is best which [manages] least."

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jonathan-winter's picture
Beautiful idea, Ross. Good management clears away clutter, appears uncomplicated, simplifies things, gives perspective. Your architectural metaphor conveys a number of valuable and practical thoughts. Thanks!
daniel-foster's picture
Hi Ross, a good read. I especially like the linkage between art and the science of management. Perhaps there are other linkages to painted art genre's that should be investigated....realism, abstract etc...Dan