What is good management?

Management process from wikimedia commons

Because I used to lecture in a management programme and because I’m still developing business curriculum and training programmes, I still read a lot of literature and listen to podcasts on management. Most of what I read and hear is blindingly obvious. And that annoys me, because the sort of advice I read/hear is often lauded or tweeted as pearls of wisdom when it should be considered common sense. Now I know ‘common sense’ is remarkably uncommon, but it just shouldn’t be regarded magically insightful to come up with such axioms as:

 

  • Good management is about being prepared to be wrong;
  • Innovative business should be accepting of failure;
  • Making the workplace comfortable makes happier workers; or
  • Communication and trust is crucial to business success.

My usual response to this involves an expletive and a reference to Sherlock Holmes.

Actually, good management is about fostering access to resources. That’s it. Nothing more. The more efficient you are at this task, the better manager you are. It’s not rocket science, it just is. There’s nothing particularly laudable about it, there’s nothing particularly interesting about it. You just do it. Frontloading management with a lot of rubbish about communication and innovation is overcomplicating the issue, and generating a time sink.

No, I’m not oversimplifying the matter. Yes, I know trust is generated from communication. But communication should occur as briefly and as efficiently as possible. This is why specialists fail at management, because they become bogged down in details.

Good communication doesn’t dumb things down, it does what a colleague of mine described the other day as “dumbing things up”. It takes complex ideas and makes them understandable. (And that’s why trained teachers can potentially make good managers because they’re used to taking difficult concepts and distilling them into understandable components.) But communication from a management perspective is less successful when it’s descriptive, and more successful when direct access to resources is facilitated. That is, as a manager you shouldn’t be describing what your staff should be doing. You should be giving them tasks, and then giving them access to templates, sources and locations where they can find what they need to complete a task. These resources allow staff to learn how to do their job. They’re not “told what to do”, they are instead given the opportunity to discover how to perform their role. It’s true delegation of responsibility, and it’s actually more rewarding for staff, both as a basis for evaluating their own performance, and as a journey of discovery about their industry and their contribution to the firm.

One of the hackneyed criticisms of MBA programmes is that they are “a mile wide and an inch deep”. So instead of having deep engagement with a specific subject area, you get a general education about management across a range of subjects from strategy, to accounting, business law, entrepreneurialism, human resources, business communication, technology management, and so on. But that generalist education is entirely deliberate. Because if you’re going to be a good manager, you need to facilitate access to people and information across an organisation, as well as to evaluate services internally and externally to improve business performance. Specialists within a firm can then happily go about doing what they’re good at and what they’re employed to do (whether these are subject specialists or administrators), and managers only interrupt them or respond to them when there is information or resources that they need to improve their productivity.

This is why I have dedicated my professional career to providing better and more efficient access to resources. It’s not because I’m a geek (I am a geek, but that’s not why I do what I do). It’s because that task of facilitating access to resources is crucial. We’re living in a time when there are more and better tools we can use to get access to content and people. It’s taking a long time for businesses to adopt these tools, and there are countless arguments about change management strategies and how to get more senior staff in particular to change their methods. But in the end, the best management system is still simple: give them access; facilitate engagement. And don’t waste time doing it.

Maybe I should stop reading/listening to management theory. But I’d much rather these resources were more useful in my own journey of discovery. Rather than wasting my time describing what to do, just give me resources, templates and methods I could use to learn.

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