It's time to reinvent management. You can help.

The M Word

by Julian Birkinshaw on November 15, 2010


julian-birkinshaw's picture

The M Word

When you ask children what they want to be when they are older, how many of them say they want to be a manager? I've certainly never met one who had such aspirations. In part this is because management is a pretty amorphous concept to a ten-year-old. But it's also because we adults aren't exactly singing the praises of the management profession either.  For example, in a 2008 Gallup poll on honesty and ethics among workers in 21 different professions, a mere 12 percent of respondents felt business executives had high/very high integrity--an all-time low. With a 37 percent low/very low rating, the executives came in behind lawyers, union leaders, real estate agents, building contractors, and bankers. Moreover, there are no positive role models out there either - the reason why Dilbert is the best-selling business book series of all time, and why Ricky Gervais' sitcom "The Office" was a big hit, is because they ring true. The Pointy-Haired Boss in Dilbert is a self-centered halfwit; David Brent is entirely lacking in self-awareness. If these are the figures that come into people's minds when the word "manager" is used, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

What should we do about this? Some observers would like us to get rid of the word manager altogether, favouring terms like leader, coach and entrepreneur.  But I believe a more useful approach is to reinvent management - to go back to first principles, and recapture the spirit of what management is all about.  We need to help executives figure out the best way to manage, and we need to help employees to get the managers they deserve.

Management versus leadership

Let's start with a definition: Management is the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives.  There is a lot of stuff missing from this definition: no mention of planning, organization, staffing, controlling, or budgeting; no mention of companies or corporations; and absolutely nothing about hierarchy or bureaucracy. And that is precisely the point--management is a social endeavor, which simply involves getting people to come together to achieve goals that they could not achieve on their own. A soccer coach is a manager, as is an orchestra conductor and a Cub Scout leader.

But over the last century, the term management has metamorphosed into something narrower, and more pejorative, than Webster's Dictionary might suggest. Managers are often seen as low-level bureaucrats who are internally focused, absorbed in operational details, and controlling and coordinating the work of their subordinates.  

Why has this change in meaning taken place?  One reason is that our way of thinking and talking about management is based on the century-old form of management practiced in large industrial firms.  This approach to management was all about improving efficiency, standardisation and quality control, and it was built on such principles as hierarchy, bureaucracy and extrinsic rewards.  The trouble is, these objectives are not what drives success in most sectors today - we are much more likely to be concerned about innovation, agility and engagement. And yet we are still for the most part using these industrial-era concepts to shape the way we get work done.

The other reason was that leadership, as a field of study, took off in the 1960s and has continued to rise since then. To make room for leadership, gurus felt compelled to diminish the role of management. For example, John Kotter saw managers as being the ones who plan, budget, organize, and control, while leaders set direction, manage change, and motivate people; and Warren Bennis viewed managers as those who promote efficiency, follow the rules, and accept the status quo, while leaders focus on challenging the rules and promoting effectiveness. By dichotomising the work of executives in this way, Kotter, Bennis and others squeezed out the essence of what managers do and basically left them with the boring work that "leaders" don't want.

Here is my view on the management versus leadership debate. Leadership is a process of social influence: it is concerned with the traits, styles, and behaviors of individuals that causes others to follow them. Management is the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals.  Or to put it really simply, we all need to be leaders and managers. We need to be able to influence others through our ideas, words, and actions. We also need to be able to get work done through others on a day-to-day basis.

The Future of Management?
So what is the future of management?  In the face of all these challenges, can management be reinvented to make it more effective as an agent of economic progress and more responsive to the needs of employees?  

One school of thought says management cannot be reinvented. For example, Henry Mintzberg argues in his most recent book, Managing, that the nature of managerial work has not changed noticeably in the 40 years he has been studying it. Management is fundamentally about how individuals work together, and the basic laws of social interaction are not susceptible to dramatic change. Indeed, is interesting to note that most of the major innovations in management--the industrialization of R&D, mass production, decentralization, brand management, discounted cash flow--occurred before 1930. If we extend this logic, we could conclude that the evolution of management has more or less run its course, that, to use Francis Fukayama's famous expression, we've reached "the end of history" with regard to management progress.

But we haven't. Of course there is some validity in arguing that the basic laws of human behavior are not going to change. But the practice of management is enormously context-dependent, and as the nature of business organizations evolves, so too will management.

Another school of thought says we are on the cusp of inventing an entirely new model of management, largely because of changes made possible by the information technology revolution. For example, Tom Malone has argued that "We are in the early stages of another revolution... that promises to lead to a further transformation in our thinking about control. For the first time in history, technologies allow us to gain the economic benefits of large organizations, without giving up the human benefits of small ones. This revolution has begun."

The only trouble with this argument is that we have been here before. All the arguments around decentralization and empowerment have been debated for a very long time. Every generation of management writers, including such luminaries as Peter Drucker, Gary Hamel, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, and Sumantra Ghoshal, has argued for its own version of revolutionary change in the years ahead. And they cannot all be right.

Is there a third way here? Can we identify a useful way forward that avoids the extreme positions of these other two schools of thought? I believe there is. We don't need to throw up our hands and say management has gone as far as it can, because that would accept the failures of management as something we must just live with. And we don't need to create a whole new model of management--we have plenty of ideas from the world of theory and insights from the world of practice to guide us.

We simply need to develop a more comprehensive understanding of what management is really about to make better choices. By going back to a basic definition of management--the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals--we can frame our discussion of the activities and principles of management much more explicitly. And armed with this new understanding, we can help managers make better choices within the universe of known possibilities, rather than suggest they invent something that has never been thought of before.

Here is an example. Why should we assume that all important decisions get made by the people at the top of the organizational hierarchy? Traditionally this was certainly the case, but is it possible that important decisions might be made in less-hierarchical or non-hierarchical ways?  Yes it is. In fact, entire books have been written on the "wisdom of crowds" and "crowdsourcing" techniques for aggregating the views of large numbers of people to make better decisions. So it would be wrong to assume that all decisions made in the future will be made exclusively by those at the top of the hierarchy, and it would be equally wrong to assume that crowdsourcing will entirely replace traditional decision making structures.

The prosaic truth is that it depends--the right model depends on a host of contingencies, including the nature of the decision being made, the company's size and background, the interests and capabilities of the employees, and so on. The right Management Model for your company is the one based on the most appropriate choices you make within known boundaries; between for example the principle of hierarchy on one hand, and the wisdom of crowds on the other.

Your Management Model is simply the choices you make about how you work - the way you set objectives, motivate your employees, coordinate activities, and make decisions.  Most companies have an implicit approach to defining their management model, by simply working with what they have inherited, or what they have seen in other companies.  My view is that you should take a more critical look at those implicit choices.  Conceptually, this involves four steps:

1. Understanding: You need to be explicit about the management principles you are using to run your company. These principles are invisible, and often understood only at a subconscious level, but they drive the day-to-day processes and practices through which management work gets done.

2. Evaluating: You need to assess whether your company's management principles are suited to the business environment in which you are working. There are risks associated with whatever principles you employ, so you need to understand the pros and cons of each one so that you can choose wisely.

3. Envisioning: You need to seek out new ways of working, by looking at examples from different industries and from entirely new contexts.

4. Experimenting: You need to be prepared to try out these new practices in a low-risk way to see how they work.

Alas, there is no recipe book for reinventing management. While these steps suggest a process for evaluating and rethinking your management principles, there is only so much you can learn from the mistakes made by troubled companies or from the latest Dilbert cartoon. The right choices depend entirely on the specific circumstances and opportunities facing your company, and on your willingness to experiment with unproven practices.

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alexander-polonsky's picture
I believe the main problem is the aggregation of conflicting roles within the single position of a traditional manager:
- a colleague, whose job is to coordinate the work of a team
- an evaluator, who evaluates the work of the team members
- a task distributor, who assigns tasks to the team members

The first role is a ligitimate one for a single person. The other two should be shared among the team members through explicit business processes, in a way that the manager gets no special treatment relative to the rest of the team. In other words, a manager is just another equal colleague whose role is to coordinate. I would suggest getting of the M-word altogether to avoid the confusion of the legacy meaning. The "coordinator" would be a good replacement.

raj-kumar's picture

Hello Prof. Birkinshaw,

Thanks for crystallizing my thinking by comprehensively developing the thought:

"Management is the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives"

  • ‘Accomplish’ places focus on what must be done but use of ‘desired goals and objectives’ dilutes the focus. It causes the mind to meander into the terrain of Goals/Objectives when the Ready-Fire-Aim approach is more effective. Starting Goals/Objectives are perhaps the domain of the Creator(s), those who bring the organization into existence. They have a purpose in which they would like to succeed. Your blog makes clear that the purpose of Management, like that of any war, is one single word: Success.
  • Perhaps ‘success’ is the most deeply studied subject considering that mankind has waged war for three quarters of its existence, and war decides the survival of entire societies. The observation of Sun Tzu on war, made 2500 years ago, stands out: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles”. Time has proven its substance. Phrased as ‘Success follows Reality’ it may now be looked upon as the first law of success.
  • So, what is the war that engages managers? The common belief is that it is ‘out there’ or the competition. That removes the emphasis from ‘in here’ or the action the company and its personnel must take to emerge the Reality. Only too often both Knowledgeable people and collectives are snared by the vicious trap of wishful thinking and the obvious that waylays all Knowledge work and exchange.  The trap is activated by choice among multiple interpretations fitting the same facts and human folly in being guided by self-interest instead of Reality. This perhaps explains the characterization of managers by Dilbert.  Learning disabilities make the trap particularly effective for collectives. The irony of Management is that it is engaged in a war against Knowledge!
  • Things start falling into place once the adversary is defined. You have noted the dichotomy that has crept in between Managers and Leaders because Managers are defined as doers, those who engage in the act of getting people together, while the Leaders engage with the purpose. Dichotomy is bad for the thinking needed to progress the ‘knowing’ of Sun Tzu. The two may be united by belief and participation in a single purpose and that could be ‘Reality’. Reality is what provides safe passage across the Knowledge trap.
  • System thinkers have identified Feedback emerges the Reality, initiates response, and is therefore the way to success. Feedback in this context means listening so as to question assumptions and generalisations, share insights and experience, and define the whole instead of the part. This message, for example, is Feedback. Thus the work of Management is cut out: It must organize for Feedback and response thereon, i.e., emerge and respond to the Reality; success will follow.
  • Once we redefine the purpose of Management as success and its method as the organizing of Feedback, the various schools of Management thought and concept of history fall into place. The history will not end so long as there as failure. Failure will lead to evolution if not re-invention. The power of the method is that it drives success and unifies the organizing emphasis of Kotter and the effectiveness emphasis of Bennis. The organizing of feedback forms the collective and the freedom to engage in action, i.e., decentralization, and empowers the collective to get what it wants.  With effective Feedback the large enterprise will derive all the benefits of the small one. We are indeed on the cusp because technology has brought us within kissing distance of Feedback. Feedback is nothing but free flow of Knowledge in context.
  • The problem that is delaying the recognition and practice of Feedback is the absence of a reliable method to tame Knowledge interactions for free flow of Knowledge. The problem has grown due to the increase in Knowledge flow caused by the internet. Discussion is not free-flow. The right Management Model for a company is that which assures the feedback needed to emerge the Reality of importance to the company.
  • Many methods have undergone trials to develop constructive collectives and trust, the empirical associates of success. Trust and Teamwork are by-products of an effective Feedback System. The method presently under trial is neo-KM where the leader has the onus to establish a Knowledge culture with the aid of behavioral sciences and technology. It derives its legitimacy and following from the success of charismatic leaders and focused projects. It is headed for failure as a reliable means for enterprise transformation because it depends on over-loaded personnel energy to drive Feedback and thereby success. It is possible personnel energy has reached the limits of its delivery.
  • To summarize this long post I would say Feedback is the missing link between the M word and success.

This feedback is based on hindsight post my success in harnessing IT to organize and drive free-flow of Knowledge in context, i.e., Feedback, in a compelling way on each business event. My work effectively converts IT from a mere tool for Knowledge work and interactions to inexhaustible intelligent energy for driving Feedback. My hack Solving the ages-old problem of the 'ignorant diagnosis' provides a perspective of my work and introduces my contribution of hacks and barriers to the MIX that explain my work. My hack ‘Compelling Energy for a quantum jump in organization performance with the same resources  describes my harnessing of IT. My Story “Combating disbelief and indifference in surfacing a basic innovation that harnesses technology to drive success” explains the struggle to establish my new paradigm for conducting Knowledge interactions.

Regards / Raj Kumar


p-singh's picture
Hello Raj,

Just how does your work tie in with the re-invention of Management? That was the central thought in this blog because the existing concept of Management is not worth recommending to children. A stink accompanies it that may be getting worse.



raj-kumar's picture

Hello Mr.Singh,

Management was not always an advanced picture of Dorian Gray. The literature and architecture of the colonial times is a reflection of the trust and style that developed around the colonial administration, eulogised by Drucker in his 1988 paper ‘Coming of the new organization’. Drucker analysed the success of the administration was driven by dialogue. Proceduraly the system prevails today but it no longer supports dialogue. My work is inspired by the colonial system. It harnesses IT to assure coordination and dialogue on each event regardless of chaos. It brings to bear the knowledge, intelligence and effort of the organization on each event. Events are uniformly categorized across the organization to sustain coordination among personnel and linking with accumulated experience. 

It follows my work does not re-invent management. I agree with Mintzberg's conclusion that 'the basic laws of social interaction are not susceptible to dramatic change'.but disagree that evolution has run its course. If the purpose of Management is success then there will be evolution and history will be created so long as there is failure. We are living in times of rapid change and a significant failure rate.

My work in fact builds on the norms of teamwork established by the stable state achieved by social interaction. It creates a compelling way of working possible only with the prevailing technology. I have concluded it leverages known behavior patterns to deliver the feedback that drives success. It is evolutionary.


Raj Kumar

elad-sherf's picture


Great post! I also agree that many of the current approaches to management belittle the practice of management and glorify the practice of leadership. Part of the myth of leadership to many organizations and people suffer from. Our culture and history created a bias for leadership which is not really based on what really happens in the real world. I am not sure I totally agree with you definition of management and leadership ( but I think the debate itself is important.

What I think we need is a refocus on management on a narrower and more general definition (and in this case, your definition or mine would do) and focus our education and training efforts on that. If you look at the average business degree or MBA you would see many subjects teaching people to be corporate executives, but not many practical managerial skills of how (for example) to get people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives. Even your own post suffers from this bias. Your example is about how top management makes decisions. While I agree with the content of the example, it is out of context. While there are elements of management to this example, I think it is more of an executive issue than a management issue. The focus of management on very specific and practical skills will enable better understanding and would be able to start the process you write about here in the end of your post.

Thanks for sharing this post. Fascinating!


julian-birkinshaw's picture
Elad, thanks for your comments.  I think you are correct to say that most of us are working with unhelpfully-broad definitions of management (and leadership, for that matter).  But I need to mull it over a little before coming up with a smart answer!  Hopefully the Drucker Symposium in Vienna later this week will provide me with more food for thought...  Julian