People Management: A Necessary Evil

I think it was Peter Drucker who asserted that people management is a necessary evil, so the less that you can get away with, the better. It’s a wonderfully refreshing perspective, especially when you consider the high-minded rhetoric that often accompanies management books or advice in business magazines. If you consider management a noble calling — as opposed to a pernicious evil — then it may seem that more of it is better… especially for the one doing the managing. But not for the managed.

For small business, highly aggressive and controlling management can be an enormous time waster. 37signals’ new book, Getting Real is a great example of practical anti-management advice. The authors argue against meetings, bloated staff, and constant intrusions.

For those who aren’t quite as revolutionary as Jason Fried and his partners at 37signals, I offer a single insight to help moderate our natural tendency to over-manage people, and a simple metric to determine whether staff are in a role that causes over-management.

First of all, let me quote the great software economist, Barry Boehm, who in his magisterial work on that subject stated the obvious: human intellect — I.Q. — outweighs all other factors, combined, in the productivity of software developers. He then set about examining all those other factors, since we cannot increase human intellect. We can, of course, try to hire the smartest people possible, and move people into work commensurate with their abilities.

A Simple Model for Effective People Management

So, I offer this simple model for management productivity (which means as little management overhead as possible):

  1. If the staff member responsible for some function, role, project, or whatever, can proceed to accomplish the work based on a relatively high-level strategic description of what is necessary, then that person is likely capable of more responsibilities or a wider involvement in the business.
  2. If it proves necessary to outline a plan of action for the staff member, but they are then able to accomplish the work, then the person is probably in the right job, or at least a role that matches the person’s current capabilities. Note, however, than management overhead is going up considerably — which is just pseudo-economic speak for wasting time of “managers.” In this perspective, however, I define manager as someone who should be doing something else but has been trapped into wasting time in oversight.
  3. If outlining a plan of action for the staff member doesn’t work, then you will be forced to actually break the project (or whatever it is) into a series of steps, and then confirm that each is accomplished before letting the staff member proceed ahead. Such people are really over their heads, and some action needs to be taken to change the scenario. It is not reasonable to just suck it up in this case, except in the boundary case of training new employees.

This third form of management is a pathology, not a strategy. If you have instituted this sort of management discipline, you are either a control freak or you need to hire smarter (or at least more accomplished) people. Note that everything above holds with groups or project teams.

Get over the self-delusion that you are more important if people bring “important” decisions to you on a regular basis. Redefine the work so that individuals or teams can move ahead without undue supervision, and make sure that only really extraordinary exceptions lead to your desk. And, even then, that situation should be considered an opportunity for others to grapple with the factors involved, and to learn how to make such decisions. This minimizes future management time wasting.

The work of a small business leader (or a larger business leader, for that matter) should be focussed on the things that will push the business forward, and that doesn’t include deciding what sorts of pencils to buy, the specific language in a marketing slick (an area that I have seem many small business CEOs drown themselves in), or even the terms of an average sized deal. If you let them, the details will own you, and your staff will never learn to take the reins on even the smallest “important” thing in the business.

So, get over it, and push off as much as they can take, not as little as you feel comfortable giving up. Yes, there will be goofs — oh, you never goofed? Did you learn from them? — but people are remarkably resilient when working in a context that doesn’t punish sensible risks or simple errors on the path to gaining experience.

My sense is that the productivity gain for the business leader (or leaders: there are usually several in all except the smallest business) by decreasing management time drastically will trump all the minor improvements of more pedestrian time management.

about the author

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