It's Bosses, All The Way Down

A response to 'No boss? No thanks. Why managers are more important than ever.'

2021-05-13 | I am reposting this piece — originally from 2019 — for two reasons. First, many folks who are now subscribers weren’t subscribers in 2019. Second, this post includes some ideas that are foundational to my investigations into minimum viable work, although less developed.

Nicolai Foss and Peter Klein go after ‘bosslessness’ as ‘one of the biggest new management fads’ in No boss? No thanks. Why managers are more important that ever.:

Unfortunately, the bossless-company narrative is dead wrong. It misunderstands the nature of management, which isn’t going away, and it is based on questionable evidence. Given these fundamental defects, this narrative is potentially harmful to managers, students and policymakers.

This is the discussion we need to have, in the transition from normal to postnormal (revolutionary) business (see Moving from ‘Normal’ Organizations from ‘Revolutionary’ Organizations). There is a long list of mistaken assertions in this piece, like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs being seen as exemplars of the new way of work, just because of the high-tech nature of their businesses. They aren’t. Also, there is no real discussion of the changing backdrop behind all this: the changing world, which invalidates a great many of the premises underlying business as normal. Consider this comment:

Third, while technological miracles such as the internet, cheap and reliable wireless communication, Moore’s law, miniaturisation and information markets have induced sweeping changes in manufacturing, retail, transportation and communication, the laws of economics are still the laws of economics. And human nature hasn’t changed. The basic problem of management and business – how to assemble, organise and motivate groups of people and resources to produce goods and services that consumers want – is still the same. Since the industrial revolution, entrepreneurs have been organising extremely complex activities in firms that are neither completely centralised nor completely flat. Imagine the complexity involved in operating a national railroad, a steel mill or an automobile assembly plant in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These were all ‘knowledge-based activities’ and were conducted in teams organised in various structures. Are things so different today?

Yes, they are. First, we’ve moved from a world that was complicated to one that is complex, and as a direct consequence things that were formerly amenable to analysis and top-down control are increasingly out-of-control and require new sorts of thinking. Just consider AI, which is an unprecedented advance and one that is likely to have an impact like electricity or written language. Second, yes human nature hasn’t changed, but our understanding of human cognition, decision-making, and social systems has grown enormously in the past few decades but has not really made much of a dent in schools of management and the C-suite, yet. We’re in a time of rapidly expanding insights about human motivation and connection, but meanwhile, our companies continue to be run with a perspective on human psychology and sociology circa 1970. And yes, the complications of running a steel mill or a railroad in the 19th century are dwarfed by the complexities of Amazon’s platform and its impact on retail markets. Complex and complicated are very different things.

What is happening isn’t the whim of hipsters, but essential adaptations to a violently changing world, not just some CEO back from a conference deciding to adopt Holacracy or Teal (and I agree, those are fads, by the way).

The real misstep here is thinking of bosslessness as the aim of the revolution in work: it’s not. It’s a side effect of adaptation to a barrage of challenges: it’s a new suite of skills, new ways of thinking, and new practices that lead to very different behaviors and cultural underpinnings at work, all in order to be effective in a drastically different context: a digital, global, and accelerated economic order.

Those who want to lord over businesses that look and feel like businesses of the first and second industrial revolution are obviously challenged by today’s business context, here at the outset of the fourth industrial revolution, and the end of the third.

We have not crossed the line, but the trend is toward a workforce of 100% knowledge workers performing cognitive, non-routine work, and all other tasks being automated at some time in the near future. That extends from the barista making your latte, to a team of software developers writing an app, to the brain surgeon in an operating room, to the entrepreneur dreaming up a new product. They are all doing cognitive, non-routine work. AI and robots will quickly take over all other work, leading to enormous upheaval and turmoil, but it’s coming. Leaving aside how we will deal with that (about which I have a lot to say), take it as a given that we are speeding in that direction, as the numbers of the past 40 years indicate. ( And also leave to one side what about AI that can match us at cognitive, non-routine work, yet another topic we have to struggle with.)

One key aspect of postnormal business is that the people working in them will demand greater autonomy, and not just out of egotistic arrogance, but as an outgrowth of their expertise and the networks of ‘talent’ needed to get things done today. That autonomy decreases the central role of bosses as decision-makers and task managers. These folks won’t need bosses, they need resources, they need barriers pulled out of the way, and they need strong teammates, but they don’t necessarily need a ‘boss’ to do those things. They just need the help of others, to cooperatively make those things happen. And no one has to boss someone else around to make those things happen: we need to pull together, not get pushed into line to make things happen.

In a sense, it’s not that companies are becoming bossless, so a better way to cast this is that the management ‘cadre’ – the elite that controls planning, decision making, allocation of resources, and personnel management – will expand in the postnormal business to include everyone on the payroll. Everyone is management, no one is an underling. (And by extension, everyone should be an owner/shareholder/partner, which is another discussion.)

Of course, that has a lot of ramifications, out of scope for this brief response. But the authors miss the deep trajectory of what’s going on. When they write,

Far from making management obsolete, however, these changes make good management more important than ever.

I agree. It’s so important we are headed for an era where everyone will be part of the management team. It’s bosses, all the way down.