Is Management Just a Relic of the Past?

Modern management is not inevitable; it was a set of practices invented for a specific place and time. Could it be that the very idea is now outdated?  

OK, I have something to confess. When I told a few colleagues what I was writing about—that modern management was an outdated concept—they laughed. “Beating up on managers again, huh?” they said. “That will get their attention, but you don’t really mean management should go away, right?” they queried.  

Indeed, that is what I mean. To be clear, there will always be a role for managers; I would even say that organizations need some level of management. But management, as it is currently practiced in most organizations, is a relic of the past. It might be time that more companies looked to jettison it for something else. 

Modern Management is a Relic of Industrial Age Taylorism 

Think, for a moment, of all the things that are a part of management as practiced by most large corporations these days:  

  • There is a clear split or delineation between managers and employees/workers. 
  • It is the job of managers to make sure the employees stay productive and on schedule. 
  • Managers do this by discovering, standardizing, and implementing “best practices” that employees must follow. 
  • Some of the most important goals for managers are efficiency and the elimination of waste. 
  • Work should be as standardized and repeatable as possible so that it theoretically can be given to any employee demonstrating the right skill set/capability. 
  • If best practices are being followed and work is standardized, the main task left for management is to provide incentives for more productive work.

It would be difficult these days to find an organization that rejected all six of these ideas; most embrace at least a few of them. But these “common assumptions” have only been around for 140 years or so, embodied in a style of management called Taylorism.  

Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915) was a mechanical engineer who was obsessed with the idea of industrial efficiency. (He is also considered one of the first management consultants to exist.) Over his career, Taylor formed ideas about how to improve efficiency in manufacturing, especially in the steel industry, using scientific principles. Taylor summed up his efficiency techniques in a book titled The Principles of Scientific Management, which made his approach widely popular in the 1910s and into the 1920s. (Though Taylor and his allies called the approach “scientific management,” his name is closely associated with the approach and today, most people call it “Taylorism.”)  

Taylor was motivated by what he was seeing in the factories he worked in during the 1880s and 1890s (including a machine shop and a steel plant). He noticed that workers tended to work as slowly as they could get away with, meaning that neither people nor machines were reaching anything near their capacity. He thought that, if he could scientifically study workers, down to their very movements, he could uncover more efficient ways to work, train workers on those methods, and give them ample incentive (read: money) to work quickly, and efficiency will skyrocket (or so the idea went). 

Going through all of Taylor’s ideas in their full glory could be a book by itself. And to be fair, some of them were good ideasfor example, the idea of finding workers with the ability to do a job, and then giving them the training to do it well. 

What is most illuminating are the assumptions behind Taylor’s work. For example, Taylor never argued, but simply assumed that: 

  • Workers care more about staying employed than about doing good, or fast, work. 
  • For any task, there is a singular best way to do that task. 
  • That best way to do a task can be found (can only be found?) through scientific studies, not through practice by the workers themselves. 
  • Some of the most important goals for managers are efficiency and the elimination of waste. 

Sound eerily familiar? Taylor’s ideas, born of the late industrial revolution in the U.S., are what gave birth to modern management in its current form—and to management consulting. 

What Did We Have Before Taylorism? 

Taylor’s style of management was born from noble intentions. He saw employees who rarely worked up to their potential, methods that were born of tradition more than measurement and evidence, rules of thumb that were imprecise and inefficient, and managers who were entirely “hands off” when it came to the very processes they were supposed to be managing. Taylor wanted to make American industries better by curing these ills.  

But it’s important to realize that, for thousands of years before Taylor and his fans came along, that is not how mankind made things. Nobody stood over Ancient Greek pottery makers with a stopwatch to see if they could make urns faster. Winemakers didn’t store their product for years out of a need for efficiency. Nobody dreamed up incentive plans because they felt that Bach, or Beethoven, or Brahms were moving too slowly with their music.  

Yes, most of the world, for most of human history, has used a craftsmanship model for making things. The idea is that quality items are best created by craftspeople who have the talent, experience, and motivation to do so. Think of a professional chef creating exquisite dishes, or a winemaker, or even a musical quartet. What they engage in is a complex craft that is not so easily repeatable.  

Crafting things individually, often from scratch, is not the most efficient way to create things. But it is perhaps the best way of letting a person’s (or a team’s) talent show through in a quality product.  

In many ways, craftsmanship denies the very assumptions behind Taylorism:  

  • Talented workers are already intrinsically motivated to do quality work. 
  • Though there are rules of thumb, there is no one best way to make an item, as there is infinite variety and evolving circumstances. 
  • The best way to inform the methods of the practice is simply to engage in the practice and then see what results. 
  • The important goal in any craft is to make high-quality, useful, delightful things. 

Back to the Future? 

A lot of the issues Taylor worried about just don’t apply to large parts of today’s economy. For example, is there just one single way to make a piece of accounting software? Could you improve how software is made by having a manager sit there with a stopwatch while a developer bangs out code? (That sounds like a terrible idea…) If money is the only incentive to work hard, why is so much technology based on libraries and products that people developed for free, on their own time, and made available to the coding community at no cost?  

Maybe it’s time, then, to go back to the earlier model based on craftsmanship. We think that this is precisely what an agile framework provides, and it is especially apt for today’s businesses. Consider: 

  • Developers and other highly talented professionals are motivated by applying and improving their craft; they do their best work when given both freedom and support to do so. 
  • The need to constantly innovate means there is no one right way to create a product or supply a service—at least, not for very long. 
  • Getting better at something means doing it, getting the feedback, and making incremental improvements. 
  • The end goal of business should be to make useful, delightful things.

This means that the role of managers needs to fundamentally change. Remember, I said there will always be a role for managers. But what managers do in the future should (will?) look a lot less like the Taylor approach, and look much more like that of a sports coach or band manager—someone who serves the talent, rather than trying to micromanage it.  

To find out what exactly those changes need to be, and how to make the transition in your organization, you’ll have to check out some of our other resources:  

Infographic: 11 Mindset Shifts Leaders and Teams Must Adopt Now 

Video series: Modern Mindset Shifts for Teams, Leaders and Organizations 

Blog: The Top 4 Skills Leaders Need Now 

Training: Agile Leadership 

John Krewson

John started Sketch in service to the mission of improving the ways people and teams work together. His past experiences as an agilist and professional actor are the primary sources of inspiration in leading this mission.

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