Are we approaching the death of management?

Darren Baguley

Friday 15 September 2017

Today’s economy is driven by knowledge flow, creativity and the ability to think outside the box. As automation continues to change the workplace, these qualities will become more and more important, but do modern management structures enable these qualities to flow?

Modern management is a creature of the Industrial Revolution. When the factory owners of more than 200 years ago were faced with the task of organising large numbers of workers, they turned to the command-and-control methods of armies and navies. Despite the passage of time, very little has changed. While companies have tried to flatten management and even introduced matrix structures to shake things up, the traditional top-down management structure has persisted.

Organisational stagnation

While this has served companies over the years, it’s a structure that can’t continue. Established organisations suffer from inertia – they’re often caught out by changing trends, and real change is often driven by crisis. Managers, right from the very top, traditionally spend a lot of their time making sure people stick to the rules. While rules, processes and procedures are needed, especially in big companies, a top-down authority structure does not drive creativity, adaptability, innovation and employee engagement.

And while organisational inertia has led to the downfall of many an established company – leading companies in one industry almost never disrupt that industry – the pace of change in today’s hyper-competitive, hyper-connected world will only accelerate. Robots and automation are set to eliminate many jobs, which will only fast-track this trend and place even more of a premium on creativity, adaptability and innovation.

Destroying the bureaucracy to save it

So how can organisations develop a more nimble and pioneering business approach that will allow it to outrun the future? Thought leader and author Gary Hamel believes organisations must be willing to unlearn for the sake of reinvention. To do this, organisations must be able “to reap the blessings of bureaucracy – control, consistency and predictability – while at the same time killing it. Bureaucracy, both architecturally and ideologically, is incompatible with the demands of the 21st century.”

Building an architecture for innovation

To truly do this rather than tinker around the edges, as they have been doing for the last 50 years, organisations need to “scrutinise the architecture and ideology of modern management” and effectively dismantle the architecture of the bureaucracy. This means challenging – really challenging, rather than paying lip service – to the ideology of management. Organisations must be hyper-vigilant to ensure best practice is not a straitjacket on innovation. Instead of merely just talking about empowerment, executive authority truly needs to be devolved throughout the organisation.

While there’s no doubt this is a tall order, it’s useful to consider that bureaucracy was invented to organise large numbers of people across time and distance. If we as humans can invent something, we can invent its replacement.

As management demigod Peter Drucker says: “If leaders are unable to slough off yesterday, to abandon yesterday, they simply will not be able to create tomorrow.”  

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