Endangered Species? Management’s New Prime Directive

Are managers soon to be an endangered species? As fast-moving, innovative companies do away with traditional hierarchies, Scrum co-creator Dr. Jeff Sutherland warns that the role of the manager needs to adapt to survive in today’s agile environment.

Endangered Species? Agile Management's New Prime Directive

Today, the fastest growing, most agile companies are doing things differently — and they’re doing them without managers.

Github uses an open allocation structure to allow coders to work on whatever they want. Zappos plans to replace its traditional management hierarchy with circles in which employees fulfill multiple roles and answer mainly to themselves. Medium adopted the same structure a year ago.

But before we declare managers extinct, Dr. Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of the agile development methodology Scrum, reminds us that getting rid of managers isn’t necessarily the be-all, end-all solution to boosting productivity. He does, however, believe that the traditional approach to the management role needs to change. A manager’s prime directive shouldn’t be to manage, it should be to help and facilitate, to motivate and guide others around a vision. In other words, what growing tech companies need are leaders, not managers.

What Our Own Bodies Can Teach Us about Good, Agile Management

“In the early days when we started Scrum, I was brought into a large bank running 150 banks,” Sutherland told OpenView in a recent interview (listen to the full conversation here). “Their huge project was always late. Everything the management was doing was making them later. ‘Let’s have more meetings. If they’re late let’s have more reporting.’ It was micromanagement running around checking up on everybody.”

Not surprisingly, having management so involved with the project only slowed progress even further. “None of that works,” he says. “It just makes it worse.” Instead, Sutherland drew on more than ten years of experience as a medical school professor and researcher to come to the conclusion that a team-based process was needed.

“What you see as soon as you try to mathematically model the human body is that it is a holocracy,” he says, explaining that “there’s nobody really telling anybody what to do in there.” He concedes that there is a hierarchy, “but it’s all one kind of interacting whole just like your body is. Your heart knows how to pump. You don’t tell your heart what to do or you’re going to get into trouble. Your lungs know how to breathe. Your legs know how to run. You may give it some direction, but then it kind of does it by itself. That’s the holocracy in action.” And, in the end, he thinks that’s exactly the model that companies like Zappos are trying to achieve.

What Teams Really Need from Managers: Help, Facilitation, Leadership

“As more and more companies have adopted Scrum. We’ve found that the thing that causes it not to work the most is the management hierarchy not changing.”

— Dr. Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum

Many companies make the mistake of “expecting Scrum to work by magic without any help from management,” he explains. Instead of simply telling the teams what to do and then walking away, managers need to be active guides, laying out challenging goals for the team. Once the goals have been clearly communicated, management then needs to assume a role similar to that of an investor: find out what the team needs to achieve those goals, work to deliver on those elements, and otherwise get out of the way.

Sutherland frames it with his own management experience, saying that “As the manager in my company, I’m really a coach to the company. I’m a team member. I work on a team. If there’s a ScrumMaster needed, I become a ScrumMaster for a while. If there’s a product, I help out with the product. I’m trying to figure out how to get this holocracy really working well.”

He points out that a holacratic approach benefits everyone by helping managers evolve into leaders. “Managers are managers because they have some skills,” he says. “They wouldn’t have this job unless they had special talents. The question is how can you use those special talents to leverage this company the most. If you ask a manager, are you leveraging the company the most with your talents by doing performance appraisals, creating budgets, and pushing paperwork, they’ll say no.”

To illustrate that point, Sutherland shared a story. After shifting to Scrum, a senior vice president Sutherland worked with at a company that is now part of GE Healthcare pulled him aside. He was worried that he was spending all of his time giving direction and guidance to his Scrum teams, neglecting his inbox and to-do list of budgeting and reports. “I said to him well, when you were a manager and not a leader, who was leading the teams? He scratched his head. He said, ‘I guess nobody.’ So, I said thank God we finally have a leader. Now let’s figure out how to get somebody to help you with the budget.”

Today’s Companies Need Leaders, Not Managers

Sutherland says that an agile, nontraditional management structure is not solely for startups. Multibillion-dollar companies are figuring out how to make holacracy work on a large scale. “That gives them an agility and a speed which — if they can manage that without going off the rails — gives them a competitive advantage. You really need leadership in those companies to keep them on track, but you don’t need a traditional manager telling people what to do.”

For Sutherland, the most successful companies of the future will be comprised of people who used to be managers becoming leaders, coaches, and motivators. “They’re not de-motivating people by telling them what to do every day, micromanaging them, running their performance appraisals, and so forth. I think management has to change the way it thinks about business to really be successful in today’s competitive environment.”

What do you think? Are managers as we know them set for extinction? Share your thoughts below.

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Share Your Thoughts

  • Kevin Groome

    Couldn’t agree more. We’ve got a team of 40, and any one of them at any moment may have the insight that corrects a flaw, refines a feature, or even closes a sale. What they seem to need from the “management team” is the context in which to evaluate the appropriateness and long-term value of their ideas. That seems to be more about creating conversations (between customers and developers, between account managers and infrastructure, etc., between finance and sales…) than it is about assigning tasks and allocating resources… We talk a lot about the “history” at my company; more and more, I see myself as the historian, who helps a lot of different visionaries invent what we’re going to do next.

  • Earl Poyraz

    Great article, thank you

  • Anton Gostev

    Awesome article, totally agree with what you said. This has been my approach to management as well.

  • David Hoskin

    This is a good discussion about the difference between management and leadership. The points you make are relevant from a practical standpoint and also supported by recent theory. An international airline I work with is implementing a Performance Leadership program. The point is to develop the competencies of line managers so they become better leaders who can help their teams deliver to the airline’s strategy using techniques such as coaching and reflection. Also, one of the largest brewers in the world is implementing a set of Leadership Competencies amongst its hundreds of managers as a way of instilling the brewer’s strategy and values throughout the organisation. True leadership is the way forward.

  • PeterJ42

    Thomas Malone in his book The Future of Work describes how the person in 1800 Spain wouldn’t be able to understand how countries could work without a king. Yet democracy was about to transform the world.

    In the same way shortsighted managers cannot see how they can let anyone else make decisions. They end up run ragged, making mistakes and blaming everyone for their underperformance. They make work. Damage teamwork. Most managers are harming, not helping their organisations.

    Democracies work better than autocracies (even flawed ones like US and UK). And the modern business doesn’t have lots of low-level employees – it has experts who want to be involved in decisions.

    So the manager becomes the co-ordinator, facilitator and mentor, not the boss. If he/she needs to exist at all. I’m with you Jeff.