I was in a meeting when it hit me for the first time. It was one of those meetings that nobody seems to want, that nobody seems to benefit from, but that for some reason everybody keeps getting dragged into. I looked around the faces of my colleagues - people who I knew to be dedicated, driven and intelligent - and I saw nothing but boredom. I listened to what was being said, and I thought about how little difference any of it would make to anything we were trying to achieve. Then it hit me with complete and total certainty.
Management is broken.
I have managed and trained managers at all levels, from the bottom of the org chart to the top. And after nearly two decades of doing this, I have come to realise that the way we approach this job is preposterous. This is a stupid way to get things done.
Bill Gates famously once said, “I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it”.
Well, we’ve been doing the opposite of that. We keep promoting hard workers, and hard workers tend to try to solve problems with hard work. Over the past few decades the demands placed on a manager have swollen to the point that doing everything we’re required to do to the standard we’re required to do it has become an incredibly rare thing. Most of us have had far more bad managers than good ones. That’s a disaster. The role is too important for that kind of failure rate. Imagine if we’d had more bad pilots than good ones.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The working world the manager was created for was a far simpler place than the one it functions in today. At first, a manager pretty much only needed to be scary. There was no employee engagement, no career development, no servant leadership or performance coaching. It was just a scary guy screaming the dreams out of a group of people with low expectations and nowhere else to go. That scary guy didn’t have to do anything particularly difficult to get people to do the work he wanted them to do. He just pointed them to their spot on the factory floor and said, “stand there and do this as many times as you can before you die”. That was being a manager.
That isn’t the job now. We can’t just be scary. In fact, modern managers must be all things to all people. We must be inspirational, authoritative and organised. We must be inventive, emotionally intelligent, patient and calm. We must be bold, but cautious. We must drive change, but maintain order. We must be selfless, but demanding. And we must be all of these things consistently, because the moment we make a mistake pretty much everyone hates us and loads of stuff goes wrong.
Take a moment to think about the personality traits and skills necessary to consistently be all of those things. I don’t know anyone who is this person. I’m pretty sure nobody is this person. In fact, I believe that if you were to ever meet this person you would know immediately, because they would physically glow. Captain America is this person. Nobody else. But in most organisations today, roughly one in seven employees perform management duties. One in seven. We are organising ourselves in such a way that success depends on one in seven people being better than the best person we’ve ever met, and then we’re surprised when everything is horrible. An entire career of working with and training managers at every level has proved to me beyond doubt that far fewer than one in seven people are capable of doing this job. It’s not even close to that. Have you met people? Most of them are dreadful.
The failure of this approach has been obvious for a long time. Employee engagement studies consistently paint a horrible picture of a workforce who are disinterested in their jobs and distrustful of their managers, and this has been the case for several years with barely any sign of improvement. Almost universally, our attempts to address this problem have centred around spending more and more time and money on trying to improve the managers. We keep trying to make the managers better so they can meet the new demands we place on them. But we keep failing, and the demands keep increasing. What if we’re going about it all wrong? What if instead of trying to make the managers better, we try to make management easier?
I created my company, DoThings (dothings.io), for exactly that purpose. It’s also why I’m writing this book. A few years ago I stepped back from my near religious belief in management and instead of asking myself how I could be better at it, I asked myself how I could make it easier, or simply not do it at all. The result was what I have come to call Minimum Effective Management. This is the absolute minimum amount of management I need to carry out in order to generate the outcomes I want. Working this way has allowed me to create workplaces that everybody can thrive in without the need for superhuman managers whose decisions determine the working lives of everyone else. It’s a way of working that any manager can adopt without needing to learn a single new skill.
I believe management is important. What we do affects the lives of other people in real and significant ways, both in and out of work. And we are failing those people far too often. But it’s not our fault, the job is just too hard now. Unless it’s made significantly simpler, this will always be the case. The approach of trying to improve the managers has failed, because the standard required is unrealistic. What I’ve discovered is that almost anyone can be a great manager, as long as they don’t try to take on the ridiculous level of responsibility we have come to believe the role demands. We’ve been adding new structures to the old foundations of management for decades, when what we really need to do is rip it down and rebuild it from scratch based on the requirements and capabilities of today’s working world.
So that’s what I did. I’ve tried to avoid making this book an instruction manual. I hope that I explain the approach and how I implement it in a way that’s digestible, but it’s not a step by step guide. I’m not trying to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be doing - just what I do, and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t do.
This is how I achieve everything traditional management claims it will deliver but consistently fails to. This is the approach I use to be successful without ever feeling pressured, working crazy hours, or dealing with the hassle and stress that managers routinely face.
This is the easy way to do a hard job.