Is there a general skill of “management”?

by Daniel on April 30, 2008

Synopsis: yes.

I promised this post in comments to Chris’s on Blackburn’s myths below, where I took my life in my hands and disagreed with John. I think that actually, there probably is “a general skill called management which works in any and all domains”, and, just to raise the tariff and secure gold medal position for myself in the Steven Landsburg Memorial Mindless Contrariolympiad, I’ll also defend the proposition that this skill is pretty closely related to what they teach on MBA courses. But first a couple of remarks on Blackburn’s own “Myth of Management“.

In his very definition, Blackburn pretty much gives it away; he says that “[the myth of management] claims that people can be managed like warehouses and airports”. What does this even mean? How do you manage a warehouse or an airport if it’s impossible to manage people? If he had said “like machines” or even “like factories”, then it might have been comprehensible, but a warehouse which doesn’t have any people working in it is just a shed full of stuff and doesn’t require any management because no deliveries or shipments are being made. And an airport without people is just a warehouse for planes. Warehousing and transport are two very labour-intensive industries.

There are two possibilities here. One is merely that Blackburn is a snob – that writing as a professor of philosophy in the THES, he felt entitled to assume his audience would know that “people” meant “middle class people”, and would agree with the implicit assertion that “people” of this sort were capable of independent thought and could not be tied down, man, unlike the meat robots who packed their books for Amazon or swiped their tickets at Heathrow. But to assume this would be wildly uncharitable. The other, and I think more likely, explanation, is that Blackburn has no idea whatsoever about what managing a warehouse or an airport would entail, and no real interest in finding out.

There is a clear analogy here to CP Snow’s famous point about “Two Cultures”;

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read?—not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language. So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had

What I mean, of course, is that if a middle manager were to mention over the dinner table that one of his proudest boasts was that he had never engaged in abstract thought in the last twenty years, had consistently managed to avoid doing so throughout his career, and that indeed whenever he was asked to provide an informed opinion on a general or abstract subject, he typically did it intentionally badly in order to make sure he was never asked again, then we would presumably agree that we were dealing with an unusually awful species of pig-ignorant chucklehead.

And yet of course, for both of CP Snow’s intellectual cultures, the parallel view of administration and management is so commonplace as to be a cliche. The abhorrence of academics of management is notorious (the abominable fashion in which so many academic institutions are actually managed even more so). Conversely, the practical men of engineering have developed an entire culture of their own based round the assumption that everything in the world is done by small groups of engineers who spontaneously organise themselves into work units, with occasional interference and distraction caused by “marketroids” who perform no function at all. Very rare indeed is a figure like Fred Brooks who actually applies scientific principles to the analysis of the organisation of computer programmers, and when he does arise, he’s honoured but largely ignored; real engineers write code, they don’t do admin.

This of course has fairly severe real-world consequences. As anyone who followed the link to my comment in the first paragraph will know, the kernel of my argument for the existence of a general skill of management is that it is pretty obvious that there is a general deficit or “negative skill” of mismanagement, which equally obviously appears to work in roughly the same way in a variety of fields, and that therefore an opening stab at a definition of the general skill of management would be that it’s the absence of this deficit. Someone like Larry Summers had a particular form of this deficit in spades. It was widely known, throughout the economics profession and beyond, that Summers was not good at handling people. The job of President of Harvard is a management job, the vast majority of which involves being good at handling people. Nevertheless, Summers was given the job by fellow academics who respected his intellect, energy and ideas and who either rationalised to themselves or never even considered the fact that they were giving an important job to somebody who very clearly didn’t have the necessary skills for it.

Then a year later, he had crashed and burned in the job, because he was no good at handling people. Nobody learned a damn thing from this debacle, of course; in general, lots of institutions are surprisingly resistant to the idea that talent in management ought to be a criterion for awarding management jobs, and the reason is that they don’t believe in a general skill of management, despite universally recognising (and often admitting to possessing) a generally applicable skill of disorganisedness.

The general skill of management has two basic components – administration and leadership.

The first is the ability to keep track of and prioritise detail. Some people are naturally better at this than others, but natural ability doesn’t actually make much of a difference in terms of one’s possession of the skill of management. The reason for this is that more or less any management task bigger than a single in-tray (and there are plenty of us, including me, who are flat out keeping control of one of those) is going to exhaust a normal human being’s memory and attention span. In order to cope with this, people through the ages have come up with a number of technologies to extend the human ability to administrate, such as alphabetical filing systems, double-entry accounts, activity reports and so on; the majority of the structures in Fred Brooks’ book fall into this category too. The majority of the skill of organisation is having the mastery of these tools and the self-discipline to use them consistently. The first is what they teach you in business schools; the second sounds more like an innate ability, but I would guess that it too can be taught.

The second is basically a species of emotional intelligence; some people are better applied psychologists than others. I must say I didn’t get much out of the “leadership” course I went on, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that there is nothing about motivating and managing people that can be taught; at the very least there’s an obvious body of applied economics which could be brought to bear to make sure that you don’t create incentives which are fundamentally inimical to yourself. So in summary, I think that there is a pretty identifiable set of skills, which can be grouped together into a category at least as coherent as most of the other things that we regard as subjects and which can be defensibly identified as the general skill of management ability.

Of course, the fact that there’s a general skill of management doesn’t mean that everything can be managed, any more than the fact that there’s a general attribute of strength means that everything can be lifted. Organisations have a lot more to them than the simple will of the people managing them and some organisations can be (or become) so pathological that there’s no managing them – either they’re too lacking in the necessary infrastructure to administer, or they’re so riven with interpersonal conflicts or perverse incentives that they can’t be led, or both.

Nor does it necessarily mean that there is a caste of individuals who can be dropped into managerial roles in any organisation and immediately start managing successfully; any organisation above trivial size is going to have a lot of idiosyncratic information (explicit and tacit) which is relevant to its management, and learning this is a difficult or even impossible task. On the other hand, it does suggest that if you have a management problem, there is some sense in asking someone who’s really good at management if they have some advice about it, which is the basis of the consultancy industry (a rather large global industry, which certainly might owe its existence purely to the desire of a self-perpetuating elite to look after their own and act as scapegoats for unpopular decisions; on the other hand, a lot of people think university education is just a racket providing certificates of entry to the middle class, and they’re wrong too).

What it does mean is that the fundamental attribution error is not always an error in this context. As in military matters, where the different abilities of generals often really do make an important difference, it really can be the case that one company succeeds and another fails because of the abilities of the person at the top. There really is a right way and a wrong way to run a warehouse.

{ 148 comments }

1

Steve Kyle 04.30.08 at 4:51 pm

A couple of comments

1. I have no doubt some managers DO manage people much as they would manage objects. This may result in good outcomes in the short run – but it alienates people and eliminates any possibility of good will or loyalty in the long run. These long run effects arent measured in the short run mindset of management gurus or quarterly returns but are important nevertheless.

2. The two qualities that make up good managers may well be congenital and not taught or at least a large part of them may be. I went to grad school at Harvard and did some work on some business related topics and also had several squash partners from the B-school. The general consensus was that the B-school graduated good people because they took care to admit good people. And while accounting and finance really are areas where you have to study and learn the stuff, the more nebulous areas of leadership and people management are ones where people either had the necessary social skills or they didnt. It was very hard to teach it.

3. A good leader knows how to do the jobs of his minions, or at least knows what it is like to be a minion. Everyone in the military takes this for granted. Not so much in business. To think that someone can waltz in and “manage” without actually knowing much about the actual products or production process may work well in the short run but again, results in serious problems in the long run.

2

Daniel 04.30.08 at 4:58 pm

I don’t necessarily agree that the majority of armies are more functional organisations than the majority of businesses; they are set up to do different things. I do think that anyone who thinks that management-in-general has been getting worse over the last twenty years (the period coinciding with the real super-growth of the consultancy industry) rather than better has quite a lot of explaining to do with respect to the observable facts about output and profits.

3

Daniel 04.30.08 at 5:00 pm

A good leader knows how to do the jobs of his minions, or at least knows what it is like to be a minion.

I also don’t think that this can be shown to be generally applicable.

4

RWB 04.30.08 at 5:04 pm

I agree in general with the two management skills of “leadership” and “administration,” but I’d also add that a key management skill is the design of incentives. Getting people to do the things you want them to do because doing so is good for those people (as well as the organization) is very tricky and often flubbed. This is true from the CEO to the janitor.

5

abb1 04.30.08 at 5:06 pm

You manage a warehouse but specifying what to put where in the most efficient way possible. You manage an airport by scheduling/assigning planes to runways and gates in the most efficient way possible. You can optimize/manage a warehouse and airport without paying any attention to people who work there.

6

Ginger Yellow 04.30.08 at 5:14 pm

I’m certainly not an expert (though I do have some management responsibilities), but I do think there is such a thing as skill in management. I’m not saying there’s a single attribute or ideal style, but clearly some people are better managers than others, and it doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with whether they are good at doing the jobs of the people they are managing. In fact, I’d argue that one of the biggest problems in business is that the career path almost always leads from relatively low paid jobs doing things to higher paid jobs managing other people doing things. Often there’s no path that lets you keep doing what you’re good at, but be paid commensurate with your ability and experience relative to others. Instead you get kicked upstairs and given responsibilities for which they might not have the skills. Some people take to it, but some people don’t.

7

matt 04.30.08 at 5:22 pm

Was the bit about the middle manager ending w/ the chuckle head part supposed to be a dig at Tilly’s little bio bit? I read it as such, and see some justice in it.

Maybe this falls under “leadership” but I’d think that one of the skills that makes up good management is not getting very annoyed that normal people are normal people and so not wanting to scream at people all the time for being thick. The lack of an ability to not want to curse people out for screwing up easy tasks is one reason I don’t like being in management positions very much. It raises my blood pressure.

8

john b 04.30.08 at 5:23 pm

“You can optimize/manage a warehouse and airport without paying any attention to people who work there.”

This attitude, approximately, is why Terminal 5 dosn’t work. Yes, you can be a successful CEO in quite a strategic and ivory-tower kind of way, but only if you have a bloody good people manager who you trust and who you work very closely with. Once company/workforce trust is broken, your ability to cope with any unexpected problems is completely screwed…

9

dsquared 04.30.08 at 5:37 pm

You manage a warehouse but specifying what to put where in the most efficient way possible. You manage an airport by scheduling/assigning planes to runways and gates in the most efficient way possible. You can optimize/manage a warehouse and airport without paying any attention to people who work there.

As John says in 8, not so, with practical examples. “Specifying what to put where” isn’t management unless you are also working on a way to make sure that things get put where you specified they ought to be put.

10

dsquared 04.30.08 at 5:39 pm

7: It’s actually an autopilot rant I’ve had stored up for years but it’s probably true that seeing it in the Tilly biog did set me off again. Which is not to mean any disrespect to Tilly or any other person (academic or otherwise) who doesn’t want to do administration – but in that case I think it’s reasonable to ask that the same courtesy be extended to administrators who don’t want to do research.

11

Kieran Healy 04.30.08 at 5:44 pm

Was the bit about the middle manager ending w/ the chuckle head part supposed to be a dig at Tilly’s little bio bit? I read it as such, and see some justice in it.

Well, Tilly made a clear choice about what to manage: rather than get involved in running a department or a university, he managed his research workshop and he mentored his advisees. He had hundreds of them, and he was famously responsible about it.

12

Stuart 04.30.08 at 5:49 pm

You manage a warehouse but specifying what to put where in the most efficient way possible. You manage an airport by scheduling/assigning planes to runways and gates in the most efficient way possible.

Isn’t this process engineering, and not management, even if some organisations it is done at a management level.

13

Michael L 04.30.08 at 5:53 pm

The worst part of the fallacy of thinking management is not a skill is that people who are highly successful doing a non-management job are thrust, because of their success, into a management job without any training. Often, it’s done because the salary structure does not allow paying the person an increase if they’re not classified as manager. But in the end, you’ve lost a successful, productive person in one slot and gained a frustrated less productive person in another slot. Not to mention the effect a poor manager has on all the people he/she manages.

14

Great Zamfir 04.30.08 at 5:57 pm

I accidentally spoke to the people who built the bagage handling for Terminal 5 just weeks before the opening. They were proud and shouting…

About the military, I don’t really see their ‘start as a minion’ approach. Most generals start at officer school, pretty much the MBA of the army.

15

tom s. 04.30.08 at 5:57 pm

Excuse me, but what are all you people doing posting comments to a blog during work hours?

16

Megan 04.30.08 at 5:59 pm

You manage a warehouse but specifying what to put where in the most efficient way possible. You manage an airport by scheduling/assigning planes to runways and gates in the most efficient way possible. You can optimize/manage a warehouse and airport without paying any attention to people who work there.i>

It is overload to hop on now, but this is crazytalk. The above is the design stage, and comes well before management. Further, good engineers specifically build their infrastructure around what humans actually do, because if they don’t, humans will hack those systems to make them meet human needs.

In my field, you design your irrigation canals with safety ladders and if it is the third world, with ledges for washing clothes. People will swim and fish and wash clothes in your canals. If you don’t design for humans, you’ll drown them or they’ll break your canal.

Management comes after all that.

17

Great Zamfir 04.30.08 at 6:01 pm

Stuart, I think most of the theory of scheduling falls under operations research, which is often taught as ‘business mathematics’.

18

Dan Kervick 04.30.08 at 6:05 pm

I actually feel somewhat competent to comment on this debate, since I was a philosophy professor for 18 years, but have worked for about four years now in the business world, at a position with the word “manager” in the title.

Simply put, then, I say Blackburn is wrong. And he is wrong, I suspect, because as an outstanding philosopher who has spent his entire life in the academic world thinking about the things philosophers tend to think about, he really doesn’t know very much about how 98% of the world around him actually works, and has based his observations of human behavior under different working conditions on the highly unusual organizational practices, and disorganizational practices, of academic departments and institutions – most of which are still based on millenia-old organizational traditions that are found almost nowhere else in the capitalist economies in which these academic institutions are embedded.

He’s right to suggest that in the business world people are by and large treated by their managers as means to ends. That may be morally objectionable, but it doesn’t change the fact that some people are better at doing it than are others. Some do it by skillfully minimizing – with their “people skills” – the amount of irritability and subversive behavior in the departments they manage. Others do it my skillfully tormenting and terrorizing the people in the departments they manage, so that these people deliver the results they are supposed to deliver, despite high levels of irritability.

An important factor in all this is the skill of “managing upward”, that is, skillfully exercising control over the expectations of one’s superiors.

And I am as puzzled as Daniel is by what the Pickwickian difference is supposed to be between managing a department (or a warehouse or an airport) and managing the people in a department. Blackburn might as well say that herds can be shepherded, but not the goats in the herd.

19

Andrew Edwards 04.30.08 at 6:07 pm

Just wanted to pull out one thread…

I’d think that one of the skills that makes up good management is not getting very annoyed that normal people are normal people and so not wanting to scream at people all the time for being thick.

and

a key management skill is the design of incentives

In my personal experience one of the hardest parts of managing is understanding that the incentives you create are not just about money. They are about the whole range of feedback signals people get, from money to time to feeling happy that they did a good job to how much fun they had at lunch yesterday.

People react to all kinds of crazy shit, including “you seemed irritated”, and the ability to control your own emotions such that ,b>all the little emotive signals you give off are also providing people the right feedback with the right tone and volume is incredibly tough.

And, while not un-trainable, this skill is under-trained. Largely because of the view, prominent in b-schools as well as elsewhere, either that:

a) if you just pay people right and give analytically correct instructions, the rest is irrelevant or
b) it’s a “natural talent” that “you have or you don’t”.

20

lisa 04.30.08 at 6:10 pm

I don’t have time to write much of a comment because I am busy trying to manage my own work at the moment but I found this surprisingly interesting and plausible. I realized that, in an unconscious way, I have gradually come around to the idea that perhaps there is such a skill from observing cases of mismanagement. Your post also made me realize the tragic fact that I excel at one apparent skill of management but am tragically deficient in the other.

The main problem I have is that the concept of management itself makes sense in the context of corporate capitalism and it is embedded in a set of values that those of us hostile to management are hostile toward. (I can only vaguely gesture at these at the moment–e.g., rigid hierarchies, the lack of autonomy for individuals, etc.) Management seems not to be the same as leadership even. And is perhaps not as broad a skill as you describe here. Does a chief ‘manage’ his tribe? Should we say: “That Julius Caesar was some great manager of Rome!” I question whether management is the concept we should apply to military leaders. And if you question the hierarchical nature of those contexts, you tend to question the skill of management. So is there a cleaned up, less politically suspect notion of management we can apply? Or is there some other skill doing the work that applies over and above the context of corporate capitalism?

I worry about the paradigm of management taking over everything and with it, the values it embodies. Is the President supposed to now be a good manager? Is this then compatible with democracy, given that the corporate model only uses a kind of faux democracy to make people easier to manage. This might be what we have–a creeping management paradigm. This is why academics are appalled when the management paradigm encroaches on the university perhaps. Because there are many kinds of complex deliberation requiring relative equality that do not fit well within this paradigm but are important ideals for university life. It’s not just two cultures snobbery there but incommensurable values.

But interesting post. I hope you will say more.

21

abb1 04.30.08 at 6:11 pm

Well, engineering or not I don’t know, but I’m sure this is what Blackburn meant – manipulating a bunch of inanimate objects, optimizing the way it’s done. If you can optimize routes for UPS drivers, you’ll probably do well with scheduling a warehouse and airport too. But if you are good in bossing around a bunch of nurses, you may not necessarily do it well with Teamsters or college professors.

22

Great Zamfir 04.30.08 at 6:15 pm

Does anyone know if the word ‘manager’ has always been this much of a synonym for ‘boss’? When I read about management culture when it was fresh and new, in the 40 and 50, I get the impression the word had a slightly different meaning, perhaps more about administration and less about leadership, or more as a very specific form of leadership. But I can’t put my finger on it.

23

Great Zamfir 04.30.08 at 6:26 pm

Abb1, I know a company that makes software that is literally used to schedule UPS drivers, warehouses and airports, so you are right on that part.

But I think this is relatively new phenomenon, that the scheduling is a separate, technical task to be potentially done by software. I get the impression that in the early days of ‘management’, making schedules really was an important part of being a manager, perhaps even more than leading people.

My mother used to have a typical ‘management’ job, where making schedules for the team was completely integrated with being their boss. I used to ask ‘can’t your computer make those schedules’, and she wouldn’t even understand the question. The hard part of that kind of scheduling is knowing your people, your customers, where you stretch the rules, when to say stop, etc. The scheduling itself is only a small part.

24

Barry 04.30.08 at 6:30 pm

abb1: “You manage a warehouse but specifying what to put where in the most efficient way possible. You manage an airport by scheduling/assigning planes to runways and gates in the most efficient way possible. You can optimize/manage a warehouse and airport without paying any attention to people who work there.”

Another data point in favor of DD’s theory that ‘there definitely exists a deficit or negative skill called “disorganisation” which works in any and all domains’.

25

abb1 04.30.08 at 6:36 pm

Another data point in favor of DD’s theory…

How so? Do you mean you would be assigning airplanes to runways according to whether the receptionist got laid last night?

26

Bruce Wilder 04.30.08 at 6:44 pm

I would demur that if Business Schools were to actually teach “management” skills, the Business Schools would be staffed from the liberal arts faculty, instead of from the social sciences faculties. Instead of economists, sociologists, social psychologists and operations research types, business schools, which actually want to teach organization management would be teaching history and rhetoric and a better class of statistics and probability math. Pride of place would not be a “Strategic management” heavy with games theory, but a literature course heavy with heroes and ethics and social psychology.

27

Ralph Hitchens 04.30.08 at 6:48 pm

Anyone who has gone from being a practicing professional in any discipline to being a manager of even small teams/groups (a dozen or more) knows that effective management has a different skill set — one not possessed by everyone.

28

Barry 04.30.08 at 6:57 pm

Me: “Another data point in favor of DD’s theory…”

abb1: “How so? Do you mean you would be assigning airplanes to runways according to whether the receptionist got laid last night?”

Sir, pleast put the bong down and step away from it, slowly……………….

Abb1, optimization/queueing methods and software are vital to running a large, complex business. However, they are *tools* for running such a business, and are a *subset* of the skills required to manage it. In fact, they might be among the more delegatable skills.

29

abb1 04.30.08 at 7:00 pm

When I was a manager I was a terrible manager and I stopped being one. And out of dozens of managers I’ve worked for I don’t remember a single one I would think of as a ‘good manager’. These so-called ‘management skills’ can only be assessed from the top down. And, I suspect, the guy/gal the big boss sees as a great manager is the worst one from the point of view of his/her underlings.

30

abb1 04.30.08 at 7:06 pm

@27: fine, and that’s the skill Blackburn is talking about, the skill that he thinks can be relatively universal. Unlike the other subset.

Unless you want to argue pure semantics, like: “operating tools for running a warehouse” is not the same as “managing a warehouse”, I don’t see what the problem is.

31

bernard Yomtov 04.30.08 at 7:09 pm

“Specifying what to put where” isn’t management unless you are also working on a way to make sure that things get put where you specified they ought to be put.

And unless you are also listening when the people who actually put things places and retrieve them explain to you that those lovely spreadsheets overlook some of the things that actually happen in the whole putting and getting process.

32

Joshua Kim 04.30.08 at 7:30 pm

Lisa @ 19. I appreciate your insight. I couldn’t quite pinpoint why this post, as interesting, plausible, and even insightful as it is, bothered me so. After reading your comment, yeah, I’m much more comfortable with the main post’s claim.

33

Doug K 04.30.08 at 7:31 pm

I tend to agree with Daniel – Steve’s point about “at least knows what it is like to be a minion” boils down to a sort of empathy, which is a form of Daniel’s “applied psychology”.

My manager could not do my (minion’s) job, but he’s still an excellent manager.

34

Jake 04.30.08 at 7:54 pm

Unless you want to argue pure semantics, like: “operating tools for running a warehouse” is not the same as “managing a warehouse”, I don’t see what the problem is.

There’s a whole branch of math (control theory) dedicated to dealing with the difference between what you tell a system to do and what it actually does (and to a lesser extent what you perceive the state of the system to be and what it actually is).

People are far more complex and crudely specified than even the crappiest effectors you would ever hope to come across in process engineering.

Ignoring this (“you just specify what goes where”) will lead to bad things, dealing with it is management.

35

Barry 04.30.08 at 7:59 pm

I think that abb1 is just continuing to make DD’s point, providing an ongoing example of f*cking things up.

36

Anderson 04.30.08 at 8:10 pm

To think that someone can waltz in and “manage” without actually knowing much about the actual products or production process may work well in the short run but again, results in serious problems in the long run.

That’s always been my objection to the “science of management” thesis.

Now, I will grant that administration and leadership are important, and may even be something more than a knack (as my translation of Plato’s Gorgias has it).

But I’m not sure they are much more of a science then, say, the care of preschoolers in a daycare.

37

abb1 04.30.08 at 8:16 pm

Yeah, you simply overstate your case, most of you. Sure, machines break, people get sick, shit happens. So, it’s like everything else: the first couple of weeks are stressful, then it becomes routine, a rather unpleasant routine, if you ask me. If it’s stressful all the time, then something is wrong – not enough resources, procedures aren’t optimized enough, not enough training, something like that. If you are a relatively well-balanced individual and not a complete idiot, you’ll manage. Nothing to be afraid of.

Military is a good example, actually: most of the military men are total idiots, and yet they usually manage somehow to bring a large group of 20-year-olds in funny-looking cars from point A to point B.

38

novakant 04.30.08 at 8:27 pm

My manager could not do my (minion’s) job, but he’s still an excellent manager.

It really depends on the business you’re in – in some your manager might run the risk of not being taken seriously at all, if he didn’t have a sufficiently deep knowledge of the subject matter (which doesn’t mean that he needs to be capabable of fully replacing you). That said, it’s true even in these cases that such knowledge is only part of being a good manager.

I accidentally spoke to the people who built the bagage handling for Terminal 5 just weeks before the opening. They were proud and shouting

I read that the system they put in place was actually fantastic (it’s been adopted from Munich airport which was very successful), but that they failed to allot enough time for training the people actually operating it, which would be a classic management failure.

39

John Quiggin 04.30.08 at 8:49 pm

I’ll back off a bit. I agree with the deficit point that some people are just bad at dealing with others. A lot of people are good at dealing with some kinds of people (commonly, though not always) people like themselves, and some people are good at dealing with lots of kinds of people.

So there is a skill there, but I’d maintain
(1) It’s not much related to what’s taught in MBA courses
(2) It’s not much selected for as people rise in organizational hierarchies

To illustrate my point, I’ll give an example which came from my earliest observations in employment. Most organizations have a social club, usually run by a long-standing but low-ranked employee. In my experience, it’s about equally likely that the social club will be run well and the organization run badly as vice versa (And you could go from businesses to national governments without changing things much).

Against your revealed preference argument, you’ve already anticipated my response. Management consultants are mostly used either to pass the buck when internal management wants to avoid responsibility for a decision, or to provide authority for a decision that’s already been made. It’s true that this criticism is similar in form to more general, and invalid, criticisms of everything that is taught at universities, but that doesn’t help you much.

40

dsquared 04.30.08 at 8:53 pm

Management consultants are mostly used either to pass the buck when internal management wants to avoid responsibility for a decision, or to provide authority for a decision that’s already been made.

By the way, the world gets a very skewed view of what management consultancies done because in general if you’re outside the world of consultancies, you tend to see much more of the high-profile strategy consulting stuff. The iceberg of management consultancy revenues is nuts and bolts stuff – just things like installing an accounts receivable system that works, researching the size of a local market, mystery shopping, doing due diligence on an acquisition target etc; the sort of thing that companies periodically need to do, but not so often that it makes sense to have a permanent staff around to do them.

41

dsquared 04.30.08 at 9:01 pm

And there’s also a revealed preference argument from the hiring of MBAs. There really do seem to be an awful lot of companies prepared to hire people with a) a certain amount of general management experience (since good MBA programs don’t, or shouldn’t, hire people without practical experience), b) a lot of management training and c) no experience at all in the specific industry they’re being hired into – on the basis that someone with that general management training has got a skill set at least as good as someone who had spent those two years in a lower middle management role in their own company.

As I’ve mentioned, I did the MSc Finance track at the LBS, not the MBA, but our classes overlapped with the MBAs. In general I wasn’t all that impressed with their intellectual ability, but was very impressed at their motivation and organisational skills.

42

engels 04.30.08 at 9:04 pm

the kernel of my argument for the existence of a general skill of management is that it is pretty obvious that there is a general deficit or “negative skill” of mismanagement

So that fact that it is possible to fuck something up means that not fucking it up is a skill? It looks like anyone whose ever successfully eaten a pretzel, or shot quail without collateral damage, is going to have something new to put on their CV…

43

John Quiggin 04.30.08 at 9:55 pm

#38 But this nuts and bolts stuff isn’t management in the sense we’re talking about, and also isn’t a generic skill. I have no doubt that there are people who are good at installing accounts receivable systems and that this is a skill that’s largely transferable. But this is just a kind of engineering and if anything runs against your argument.

To push my point a bit further, and drawing on #22 among others this suggests a point like the following. Some technical parts of running an organization, like scheduling, may require the person doing them to order other people about. But this doesn’t, to my mind, approach the claims that are commonly made regarding “management” as a skill.

44

John 04.30.08 at 10:03 pm

I think I broadly agree that ‘management’ is a combination of ‘leadership’ and ‘administration’. I really do question whether MBA courses teach either of those skills. I have worked with and managed MBAs from the world’s top schools for most of my career and I would say that their MBAs gave them two skill sets; analysis and self promotion. These skills are critical to success in fields like investment banking and consulting but secondary to success in running a department, division or corporation

45

engels 04.30.08 at 10:10 pm

I am as puzzled as Daniel is by what the Pickwickian difference is supposed to be between managing a department (or a warehouse or an airport) and managing the people in a department. Blackburn might as well say that herds can be shepherded, but not the goats in the herd.

Or perhaps that a Chinese-room can understand Chinese but not the guy inside it, which isn’t actually a crazy thing to believe.

I think the point is that managing something means being in control of it. You can indeed control an airport or a warehouse, but you can’t control people (not all of them, not all of the time). They have, you could say, minds of their own.

46

abb1 04.30.08 at 10:10 pm

I never heard of any management consultants installing anything. All they ever do is getting people laid off.

47

John 04.30.08 at 10:18 pm

#46 Somebody has to make the case for the installation. It’s not a trivial skill to develop a rationale and business case for getting government to invest in new ways of providing psychosocial support to cancer patients and their families.

48

Andrew Edwards 04.30.08 at 10:20 pm

the sort of thing that companies periodically need to do, but not so often that it makes sense to have a permanent staff around to do them.

This includes “high profile strategy”, I’d argue. Many companies do, in fact, need 5-year strategies. They just don’t continuously need new ones.

I never heard of any management consultants installing anything. All they ever do is getting people laid off.

I call excluded middle. I am a management consultant and I rarely install things and also rarely get people laid off.

49

virgil xenophon 04.30.08 at 10:44 pm

Managerial skills and Leadership skills are, in the main two different things often subsumed under the heading of “Administrative” skills. Separate though they are, they are inextricably intertwined–the level of decision-making in the organization often determining which of the two skills is to be emphasized. The Chief-of-Staff of the Army is likely to need and exercise a very different set of administrative and decision- making skills than when he was a 2/lt platoon “leader” thirty years prior.

As far as “leadership” traits go, one will find, if one scans the academic literature, that one will quickly come to the conclusion that the traits that comprise “leadership skills” are so varied as to be unclassifiable in that what qualify as the vital “traits” or “Skills” are highly situation specific. Take the example of a commercial aircraft over the Amazon… The stewardess bursts out of the cabin and cries out: “The aircrew have all died of ptomaine poisoning, can anybody here fly this plane?” One man stands up and says: “Yes, I’ve just retired from 20-yrs flying this very class of aircraft! A “new” “leader.” Upon successfully landing the craft on an abandoned strip in the middle of nowhere the question next becomes: “Who will lead us out of here?” A new “leader” raises his hand and says: “I’ve been a jungle explorer for most of my life, although mostly in Africa, I know the basics.” So off they go. A day of so later they are confronted by a band of head-hunters. The explorer has never delt with S. American tribes before and is at a loss. A small, frail, balding man with coke-bottle glasses steps forward and states: “I’m a Professor at Stanford(strike all before; sub tall dark and handsome–and well-tanned). I’ve studied this tribe for 40 yrs and not only do I speak the language and know all its customs–I’m married to the Chief’s daughter.” Whose the “leader” now?

Managerial skills are supposedly much more general, more easily categorized and taught. Such a view was the basis for the craze in the 50’s and 60’s towards formation of multi-national conglo- merates of dissimilar companies under the theory that one didn’t have to know anything about the
basics of each industry, “management skills” were
easily transferable. This view is now in disfavor,
with the current state of play consisting in the
search for that “golden mean” which hovers somewhere between general principles and specific detailed knowledge of the sort lionized in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”

50

dsquared 04.30.08 at 10:57 pm

But this is just a kind of engineering and if anything runs against your argument

That’s perilously close to abb1’s automated airport. Designing an accounts payable system is basically a kind of engineering, but installing one and not screwing up the doing so is a different skill. The skill of Actually Doing It shouldn’t be underestimated.

(I’d also note that for all that they’re reviled and unfashionable now, companies like Hanson Trust really did show that substantial gains could be made by implementing rigourous financial controls in companies from head office without getting involved in operational management, and the modern private equity industry is largely involved in exactly the same sort of thing. It’s pretty fashionable to claim that the private equity guys never add anything except leverage (or that they add all their value by stockpicking and deal selection rather than operational improvement) but the opposite case is that they actually do make money out of free-floating non-specific managerial expertise and it can’t be dismissed out of hand).

51

Anderson 04.30.08 at 10:57 pm

One problem with “leadership skills” is that different people, in different settings, follow for all sorts of reasons.

To lead, you have to be followed.

Unless you’re able to homogenize your followers (as in the army, w/ threat of force), a real leader has to be able to adapt to all different sorts of followers.

This is difficult, so lots of leaders either resort to force, or appeal to particularly broad-based instincts and desires (see “demagogue”).

Neither of those is particularly suited to an MBA curriculum.

52

john b 04.30.08 at 11:01 pm

I call excluded middle. I am a management consultant and I rarely install things and also rarely get people laid off.

+1

53

CK Dexter 04.30.08 at 11:16 pm

As in the previous discussion of Blackburn’s column, much of the criticism seems to depend upon overly literal readings that don’t allow for the implied meaning behind the author’s attempted humor.

Daniel divides the skills of management into leadership and administration. But this completely ignores Blackburn’s claim that indeed human affairs can be administered, however this isn’t what he means by “management.”

Surely “leadership” is not the kind of mythical skill Blackburn is targeting either. For he implies that management is a way of acting upon human beings in ways inappropriate to the ways that human beings can be effectively guided, motivated, and/or manipulated: “People can be persuaded, and ordered, given incentives and penalties, suppressed and killed, but not managed.”

If we’re to find a point of contact between his critique of management and these defenses, it might work to say that Daniel’s definition is one of _good_ management, or a form of management appropriate to the nature of human beings, while Blackburn’s definition is a cynical one of the form that he thinks attempts to skillfully manage usually take in practice: “ignoring whichever of their needs is inconvenient and by treating them as a mere means to your own ends.”

There is perhaps the added implication that this failure to manage humans well is not accidental: that the mentality of self-described managers is grounded in a misguided understanding of human nature. Of, perhaps, the kind that take seriously the language of “leadership,” without any willingness to consider that this is a self-congratulatory term for subtle manipulation with less blowback. Not to say this implication is true, but not patently absurd.

There is nothing particularly novel about any of this, but surely it’s not ludicrous or so obviously incorrect as all that.

54

Caleb D'Anvers 04.30.08 at 11:28 pm

I thought Blackburn’s (admittedly skimpy) critique was aimed more at Managerialism than management per se. In other words, it’s the ideological component implicit in the claim that all social systems resemble corporations that interests him, rather than anything else.

55

engels 04.30.08 at 11:34 pm

He’s right to suggest that in the business world people are by and large treated by their managers as means to ends. That may be morally objectionable, but it doesn’t change the fact that some people are better at doing it than are others.

Yes, but it changes the extent to which differences in performance are plausibly to be attributed to differences in skill, rather than differences in one’s willingness to treat other people like shit, debasing their humanity and one’s own in the process. For example.

56

dsquared 04.30.08 at 11:40 pm

while Blackburn’s definition is a cynical one of the form that he thinks attempts to skillfully manage usually take in practice

why on earth would we take seriously what Blackburn thinks “usually takes place in practice”, without supporting evidence? As a Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, he almost certainly has less direct experience of ordinary management than anyone commenting on this thread.

57

CK Dexter 04.30.08 at 11:54 pm

(55)

I wouldn’t take Blackburn seriously on this point on the basis of his experience, but we might do so on the basis of common knowledge or ordinary experience which might offer some support. I don’t know, your own mileage may vary.

I’ve been on the receiving end of managery a few times in my day, and have known plenty of people who been managered frontways and backways a time or two. On that basis, the suggestion that management often involves treating persons like shit or debasing their humanity, as Engels aptly puts it, sounds thoroughly plausible.

I’m taking for granted that verifying Blackburn’s charge is best done by asking the experienced managees rather than managers.

58

engels 04.30.08 at 11:55 pm

(The last part of #54 was intended to be a colloquial gloss on Kant’s imperative, rather than pointless antagonism, of course.)

59

engels 04.30.08 at 11:56 pm

And I’ll second CK’s final para…

60

sara 05.01.08 at 1:27 am

A major reason is probably academic (and, for the most part, the humanities side of the Two Cultures) loathing of the genre of popular management literature, of the Who Moved My Cheese? variety. I’m not an engineer, so I don’t know whether engineers and operations researchers loathe this genre as much (or likely more).

This literature, especially once the cheese has aged a few decades and its social assumptions are more obvious, would provide a rich field for academic analysis.

After a few hundred years, it becomes classic. E.g., Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, or Vegetius. Some of these texts are routinely reissued for the popular management audience, though one shudders to wonder whether their readers apply them literally.

61

theo 05.01.08 at 1:39 am

Daniel, you’re as wrong about Harvard governance as the proverbial American who assumed Prince Philip appoints Cambridge professors.

The Harvard President is actually chosen by the Harvard Corporation a.k.a. the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

“The search committee is made up of the six members of the primary governing board, the Corporation — excluding interim President Derek Bok — and three overseers.”

http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/01/27/harvard_near_end_of_search_for_president/

The appointment is then confirmed by the full Overseers and the Corporation.

http://www.hno.harvard.edu/guide/underst/

So don’t blame the Harvard faculty for Summers’ hire, blame the Directors of Corning, the Capital Group, and Citigroup. Now, in retrospect, it’s not surprising how badly they screwed up.

(The faculty do, however, get most of the credit for Summers’ termination).

62

Tony Healy 05.01.08 at 1:54 am

Daniel, why do you position management as something that’s taught by MBA schools? I would argue it’s not. MBA schools teach specific competencies for operating in large corporate environments. In environments outside that setting, MBAs as such are often weak as managers.

In fact, one of the reasons the software world is curiously contemptuous of MBAs is their generally poor performance as managers in that environment, unless they previously had expertise in engineering.

Your interpretation of Dilbert and Raymond’s Bazaar hypothesis are wrong, and indeed a good example of what Dilbert writes about.

Dilbert’s theme is incompetent management, not the virtue of small groups. Engineers mostly operate in large teams and are critically aware of the importance of good and appropriate management. That’s what Dilbert is all about.

Raymond’s Bazaar hypothesis is part of the open source movement, and certainly not part of mainstream engineering culture.

It’s not correct that Fred Brooks’ expertise is rare or ignored. Successful software firms apply those principles. Usually those are firms managed at the top by engineers, like Google or Microsoft.

63

Sumana Harihareswara 05.01.08 at 3:01 am

I’m a project manager with a political science degree, about to finish my master’s in tech management, who’s read Brooks, Adams [Dilbert], Machiavelli, and Raymond. Not to mention Davies. So I’m reading this thread with interest.

64

mq 05.01.08 at 3:38 am

Sara’s comment at 20 was great.

65

Voice of Reason 05.01.08 at 5:47 am

Why would an MBA make you better able to manage any complex organization in particular? Let’s take the “MBA President”, GWB, as one example. Enough said.

I work in videogame development, which is commonly viewed as a trivial industry but which is among the most complex art forms in the world. People who are highly successful engineers, artists, or designers are not necessarily great managers. My experience is that it’s better to find people who want to manage rather than turn the talented into mediocre managers.

Leadership is definitely different from management. Great leaders can come from any discipline, but their success is linked to their personalities more than their competence or training. Maybe leadership can be taught, but most organizations would prefer to look for natural leaders they don’t have to develop, rather than investing in people who would have to learn it.

66

Daniel 05.01.08 at 6:48 am

gosh, a crop of ideology appears to have grown up on the blog overnight:

but it changes the extent to which differences in performance are plausibly to be attributed to differences in skill, rather than differences in one’s willingness to treat other people like shit, debasing their humanity and one’s own in the process.

get off your high horse. There’s a testable proposition here; do successful companies treat their employees like shit? I don’t think your answer is well-supported by the evidence. Companies “treat their employees as a means to an end” in exactly the same way in which you, me and Simon Blackburn treat the lad behind the counter as a means to a sandwich. In other words, they interact with them on the basis of their role in the social entity which is the company. That can be nice, nasty or neutral and nothing is really gained by assuming it is always nasty (Adam Smith is right on this one and Kant is wrong; Marx didn’t like alienated labour, but I don’t think he would have endorsed your view in that post).

I’m taking for granted that verifying Blackburn’s charge is best done by asking the experienced managees rather than managers.

Surely on this criterion, Boo.com would have been the best-managed company anywhere in the world ever? A company is a commercial enterprise. It tells you how well its management have performed regularly, in money. One might want to augment any one year’s P&L account with other measures if one thought there was a danger of short-termism, but judging a management team based on a survey of their employees seems to me to be no more sensible than judging a university by a survey of its students.

MBA schools teach specific competencies for operating in large corporate environments. In environments outside that setting, MBAs as such are often weak as managers.

This isn’t true; have a look at any private equity partnership for example.

In fact, one of the reasons the software world is curiously contemptuous of MBAs is their generally poor performance as managers in that environment, unless they previously had expertise in engineering.

You presumably mean “expertise in software development”, unless you’re asserting a career track from bridgebuilding to MBA-school to software development. This is a pet peeve of mine.

I don’t believe that the software world is particularly contemptuous of MBAs. They certainly seem to do a lot of MBAs themselves, don’t they? Your “unless they have expertise” caveat basically gives the entire game away; everyone’s contemptuous of people who don’t have any expertise in what they’re doing, but this doesn’t really mean anything about MBAs. I’ll tell you what the world outside is often really contemptuous of; computer programmers who try to run companies despite having no organisational or people skills. The small software company run by its engineers which crashes and burns for lack of basic management is a cliche of the industry.

Usually those are firms managed at the top by engineers, like Google or Microsoft

I don’t think this is even true. Steve Ballmer isn’t an engineer, for example; he had an undergraduate degree in maths and economics and dropped out of Stanford business school.

Looking down Google’s Executive Management Group, I score it seven engineers (Schmidt, Page, Brin, Coughran, Eustace, Holze, Huber), five MBAs (Bock, Brown, Kordestani, Reyes, Rosenberg) and two lawyers (Drummond, Schrage). So even including the founders, professional engineers don’t outnumber professional managers at the top level of google (I’ve counted Shona Brown as an “MBA”; actually she has a PhD in strategy and organizational theory, but she worked for McKinsey for ten years so I’m not being unfair here).

67

Chris Bertram 05.01.08 at 7:36 am

_Adam Smith is right on this one and Kant is wrong_

I’ll do the routine job here of pointing out that Kant is fine with treating people as means, so long as they aren’t treated as means _only_, that’s to say so long as you give due recognition to their personhood. He’s ok with you buying sandwiches, just say please and thank you to the person selling them.

68

Nordic Mousse 05.01.08 at 7:44 am

“The small software company run by its engineers which crashes and burns for lack of basic management is a cliche of the industry

A cliché, as you say. But the software industry is hardly unique in that respect. Besides, as the banking & finance community currently shows, one can be up to the gills in MBAs, and still make a pig’s ear of things

69

Daniel 05.01.08 at 7:49 am

Kant never had to take the fucking DLR at 6am.

(More seriously of course, thanks Chris. Mind you of course, the Kantian concept is a bit double-edged in this context, as of course Kant would presumably equally warn against the employees treating their managers and their employer’s shareholders merely as means to a salary. Surely a consistent Kantian view would require the guy at the sandwich counter to think about the shareholders of Pret a Manger in exactly the sort of way Jack Welch claimed to think about the shareholders of GE, and I think we can all see that dog ain’t going to hunt).

70

abb1 05.01.08 at 8:08 am

Now, what’s wrong with my “automated airport”, exactly? I bet this is how most airports work most of the time: the workers (including middle managers) come, perform their routine, and go home; top managers nap or polish their ppt presentation skills or are away on important “business trips”.

Seriously, what do you think is going on in there? Something romantic, like in Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple?

71

Luis Enrique 05.01.08 at 8:20 am

Bravo D2. I also suspect that people who sneer at management have never worked somewhere like an airport or a warehouse, and experienced the difference between good and bad managers.

72

ejh 05.01.08 at 10:02 am

I’m not sure what DD means by “leadership” and I’m pretty sure there’s not a more overused or misused word in the vocabulary. I don’t doubt for a moment that such a thing exists: you can’t follow sport, which I do, without recognising its existence and I imagine people who are interested in the military and in military history would say the same. But the problem is that sport and war, though often applied as concepts to problems of business and organisation, are really a great deal more specific to themselves than this allows for: the motivations are very diffrent and so are the rewards.

This really means that the more people bang on about leadership, they less they show it: they tend to understand what motivates people like them (doing well, towards the top of organisations or getting there) and have very little understanding of why this might not apply to the most of the rest of us. Or indeed that there may, actually, be very little, much of the time, that they can do to motivate the rank-and-file or to change our working habits and modes of thought. So you get this phenomenon whereby people attend loads of breast-beating management seminars and read lots of Tom Peters and agaonise about whether or not they are Motivating Their Staff and end up shouting at us and cursing us for our backwardness and laziness, because the job can’t really be done that way. (The same people, by the way, will be very keen on free-market economics because it recognises the realities of human nature.)

I agreed very much with abb1 saying the following:

I suspect the guy/gal the big boss sees as a great manager is the worst one from the point of view of his/her underlings.

Indeed: and I’d add that of all the managers I’ve ever had, though most have been pretty bad, the good ones have all had one thing in common: they all knew and cared about the job. And there is nothing which people more loathe about a manager than lack of knowledge of the job (which is one reason why Dilbert has an appeal far beyond the profession of software engineers).

So I’d reckon:

1. I don’t really agree with DD that there’s a skill of management divorced from understanding of the particular job: certainly not to any great extent.

2. There is a general skill of organisation, and it’s phenomenally important.

3. When people talk about motivation and leadership they are nearly always talking self-serving or self-deluding tripe, not least because what applies to people like them does not apply to people who are not like them.

4. If you try to manage for any length of time without knowing the job you’re managing, you will come a cropper. You will blame the people you are managing.

73

Tom 05.01.08 at 10:24 am

Stamina and political nous are more commonly seen skills in the management cadre than competence, leadership or organisational skills, in my experience. Crap managers, but good political players, rarely come a cropper. Trotting out the senior brass dictates and then blame the minions when things f*ck up is the time honoured approach.

Really good middle managers filter the top level strategic mandates and translate them into something workable and understandable for the lower level grunts. It is hugely motivating to work for someone who does this well, without resorting to platitudes and insincerity. But these skills are not well rewarded and the approach takes a level of honesty which means sometimes going against the party line.

74

JohnTh 05.01.08 at 10:32 am

I can confirm that Professor Blackburn, while a marvelously erudite and interesting teacher of Philosophy, is not really au fait with some the skills needed in business. I work at a large business which employed Prof Blackburn to give a ‘left field view’ on business issues, and I worked with him to get his presentation sorted out. Amusingly enough, for most of my working life I was one of the Prof’s hated management consultants, and so it was interesting to see that one of the skills that the Prof lacked is presenting conceptual ideas to a practical, non-academic audience in a concise and effective way. Ironically, this is something that top consultants are genuinely very good at, and it’s rooted in the ability to understand how other people see the world – an related skill to dsquared’s ‘leadership’ skill.

75

chris y 05.01.08 at 10:45 am

A good leader knows how to do the jobs of his minions, or at least knows what it is like to be a minion.

I also don’t think that this can be shown to be generally applicable.

A good leader must at least understand what her immediate reporting line do, because they’re an important channel of information into her decision making process, and she has to be able to evaluate them critically.

I think Daniel’s claim here are pretty modest, because essentially he’s sayingthat a. stuff doesn’t happen by itself and b. not everybody is equally capable of making it happen. This should be non-contentious. What causes hackles to rise is when an assumption is made that an MBA, which is simply a toolkit of teachable skills to make a manager’s job easier, actually qualifies a person to lead and to administer. Unfortunately, this is a mistake that is commonly made by less stellar corporate heads.

76

Dave 05.01.08 at 10:46 am

Question: would people who advocate the skill of “leadership” admit to being easy to “lead”, or to having been “led” to do things they didn’t want to do during their own career? Does leadership require people who are predisposed to be followers?

I’m not trying to torpedo here, one can lead, and lead effectively, but I wonder if it doesn’t require a certain amount of double-think to be both leader *and* led? Military hierarchies are good at doing this, in theory, but I wonder about the practice.

77

abb1 05.01.08 at 10:51 am

I heard this anecdote, I think it was about Kurchatv: a new complex was built for his institute, several buildings, he oversaw the project. So, the compound is built, people move in, the institute is functioning, but there’s still not a single sidewalk between the buildings, people walk any way they want across the lawn. Wtf? Well, the guy waited until paths were made the natural way and then ordered to pave them.

Companies, if left alone, tend operate this way too: internal networks of informal connections. There are disadvantages in it, of course, little inefficiencies, sure, but this is how people like to do it: “hey, mate, could you do me a favor?”. Rather than “I’m logging an incident for my boss to ask your boss to assign you a task”.

Then, of course, a management consultant comes – armed with the latest wisdom of ITIL (or some such crap) – and tell them to create the central service desk, to “improve” communications, to log all calls, and so on. And down the drain it goes. At least for a while.

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ejh 05.01.08 at 10:53 am

because essentially he’s saying that a. stuff doesn’t happen by itself and b. not everybody is equally capable of making it happen.

I take this point, but I wonder if it’s not a case (by and large) of “less is more” – in other words that the skills involved are in most contexts actually quite modest and quiet (in a way that they would not be in a war or in a football match) and that the amount of difference they make is really quite small compared to, say, the skills of financial or organisational competence. However, doing it quietly and modestly doesn’t really advertise your Commitment To Excellence to the boss.

79

CK Dexter 05.01.08 at 10:58 am

“He’s ok with you buying sandwiches, just say please and thank you to the person selling them.”

This is the best and most precise explanation of Kant I’ve ever encountered. Particularly the as a clarification of the “only as means” part, which is so often completely missed.

“Does leadership require people who are predisposed to be followers?”

Maybe not to an unusual degree (insofar as all human beings may be predisposed to be followers to a degree), but it does require people who are skillfull at taking advantage of that ordinary disposition, of transforming people into followers. This is why I take it that Blackburn suggests that “good management” is truly a form of mismanagement.

80

Daniel 05.01.08 at 11:01 am

If you try to manage for any length of time without knowing the job you’re managing, you will come a cropper

Once more, I submit the counterexample of Hanson Trust plc. Unless we’re going to render “knowing the job” tautologous (if it just means “knowing enough about the business to manage it” rather than say “knowing enough detail to perform well at any level of the organisation below your own” or something), then there are plenty of examples of people who wouldn’t have been in this position – Sir John Harvey-Jones, for example.

81

ejh 05.01.08 at 11:12 am

Harvey-Jone was something of an exception, though, isn’t he? And I’d wonder if he didn’t do what he did in certain specific circumstances where his approach worked – and many approaches that may not work generally, may work very well in limited circumstances. (And, as ever, all approaches depend on the people involved with them, which is why exceptions exist – and why, indeed, management is a difficult thing to do well, because what works for employee A doesn’t work for employee B.)

You see, one of my reasons for scepticism about the existence of a skill of management is that there has been, over my adult lifetime, and extraordinary growth in interest in management theory, with all sorts of expensive courses and cheaper books to advise people how to go about it. Yet I’m struggling to see that it’s actually done any better now than it was when the whole process started. Although God knows that does nothing to reduce the flow. So I wodner whether people aren’t looking too hard for somethigng grand and all-encompassing whereas they might be better off looking for something smaller and less dramatic.

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ejh 05.01.08 at 11:22 am

Perhaps let me put it like this:

“If, in order to perform a skill properly, one needs to be an exceptional individual, then for most normal purposes that skill does not really exist.”

I wonder if I can attract anybody to a series of seminars based on this proposition…

83

Great Zamfir 05.01.08 at 11:22 am

I suppose status is what muddies the ‘management as skill’ argument. Pretty universally, peopl are sentive to some form of status, and in most situations being boss gives you more status than being an underling.

Perhaps in the ideal situation, management is a skill like any other, and the good programmers program, the good sandwich salesmen sell, the planners plan and good leaders lead. If management is really soemthing more specific than leadership, than management should be done by good managers.

But everyone knows that’s not exactly how it works . On the one hand the status attracts people to management who might not be good managers but who are particularly status-sensitive, on the other hand highly-qualified people are almost universally irritated by the status (and power) of management. Those irritated people probably include philosophy professors and myself (if I were to count as highly-qualified).

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Alex 05.01.08 at 11:33 am

Do you mean you would be assigning airplanes to runways according to whether the receptionist got laid last night?

Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid. “Assigning airplanes to runways” isn’t management – it’s air traffic control, which I think we can all agree *is* a specific skill. Further, aeroplanes are assigned to runways by the answer to the following question:

Which runway is closest to pointing directly into the wind?

Now, setting up a roster of air traffic controllers that guarantees you neither have either a) both the rookies on duty at once, creating a dangerous lack of experience, b) both the greybeards on duty, so they are both convinced they are right, or c) one greybeard and one rookie, so the greybeard doesn’t trust the rookie and the rookie is scared to point out the greybeard’s mistakes, well, that is actually management.

85

Havelock 05.01.08 at 11:39 am

Maybe now that everywhere you go you come across ‘managers’ of something or other, the really top people need to differentiate themselves as ‘leaders’. Of course, there’s a considerable popular literature on how political leaders can learn from corporate leaders and vice versa.
An egregious example of this ‘leadership industry’, is Thompson and Ware (2003),‘The leadership genius of George W. Bush’, in which the authors talk about how Bush has a ‘CEO intelligence’, how his leadership is based on ‘core values’, how he ‘inspires through the vision’, and so on.

86

abb1 05.01.08 at 11:40 am

“Assigning airplanes to runways” isn’t management – it’s air traffic control

Assigning airplanes to runways is management, management of airplanes and runways.

Management of airplanes is what Blackburn contrasts against management of people. Is this so complicated?

87

ejh 05.01.08 at 11:44 am

Assigning airplanes to runways is management

I think it’s organisation…

88

engels 05.01.08 at 11:59 am

a crop of ideology appears to have grown up on the blog overnight

Don’t be so hard on yourself!

There’s a testable proposition here; do successful companies treat their employees like shit? I don’t think your answer is well-supported by the evidence. Companies “treat their employees as a means to an end” in exactly the same way in which you [my emphasis], me and Simon Blackburn treat the lad behind the counter as a means to a sandwich.

It’s a normative proposition. But I don’t think that all commercial relationships are on a par from Kant’s point of view. Buying a sandwich is okay if you say please and thank you. Buying sex is not. Buying control over the best hours and years of somebody’s life imo fall somewhere in the middle.

Anyway, my purpose was not to make the banal and uncontroversial point that many managers do in fact treat their minions in morally objectional ways (which had been conceded in the post I was responding to) but just to observe that in so far as this is so it provides an additional reason for doubting the management is a ‘skill’.

89

ejh 05.01.08 at 12:08 pm

Alex’s final paragraph at #82, setting out three unpalatable choices and observing that we must choose, does indeed identify something called organisation. But I’d reckon the task he sets couldn’t be solved without considerable knowledge of the tasks and individuals involved.

90

belle le triste 05.01.08 at 12:09 pm

is “good with people” a skill?

(better: are the various very extremely different kinds of being “good with people” skills?) (answer will certainly depend on how you define “skill” of course* — but they are all things you can be bad at)

*ie does a skill have to be teachable? there is teachable “good with people”, available arguably to all (dep.defn of “teachable”?), and the natural-born “good with people” that some (some villains, some saints) have from the off

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chris y 05.01.08 at 12:14 pm

On the one hand the status attracts people to management who might not be good managers but who are particularly status-sensitive, on the other hand highly-qualified people are almost universally irritated by the status (and power) of management.

But this raises an entirely separate issue. In large (and medium sized) organisations, people are promoted as a reward for good performance in their job. In many cases, this means taking them off doing what they have shown themselves to be good at and putting them into management, for which they may or may not have any aptitude.

Self evidently this is an effing silly way to a. make the most efficient use of your best people, b. choose managers, and c. maintain the morale of the people you want to reward (who may be stoked at the moment, but are quite likely to fade rapidly if they find themselves square pegs in a round managerial hole).

But this is the shape of the corporate world as it has evolved since the middle ages, and changing it would be a revolutionary task, literally. Not to be expected that people who are just trying to maintain a decent ROI should go to the barridades for it.

92

Great Zamfir 05.01.08 at 12:26 pm

Belle, I would say yes, to some extent teachable but also very much ‘alread there’. I just do not know if ‘from the start’ means ‘born with it’. How you react to people around you is influenced by your life from the earliest years on. If you look at 12-year olds, there is already a lot of ‘people skills’ that are likely to stay for the rest of their life. But ‘born with it’ is something else again.

I have known some children of wealthy parents, of the factory-owning kind, who really did appear to be ‘born leaders': they were charming, decisive, confident, and if they made a suggestion it was ususally a good plan, and people felt it was a good plan too.

I don’t like the conclusion at all, but it really appears some people can raise their children to be good leaders in a sense that I could not. I guess that is one of the reasons that class-based society can be so hard to eradicate.

93

Daniel 05.01.08 at 1:26 pm

In general, folks – I think we’re all aware that there is a lot of bad management out there. There is a lot of bad food out there too, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no such skill as cooking.

On the question of “is ‘good with people’ a skill?”, I’d note that it’s always a lot easier to be good with people if you’re dealing with them transparently in an environment with clear and fair practices and one in which they’re part of a team which is in general achieving its goals, and that the skill of making sure that you’re in this environment (rather than in the sort of disorganised hell-hole which only exceptional leaders are good enough with people to keep them motivated) is also part of management.

Chris Y: I’d note that the issue you raise is a big part of why management education has become so popular (and I don’t necessarily agree with EJH that the general quality of management hasn’t improved over the last twenty years).

94

Dan S. 05.01.08 at 1:36 pm

But I’m not sure they are much more of a science then, say, the care of preschoolers in a daycare.

The two things (or three) things are definitely related. Indeed, k-12 teaching (less so on the high school or local equivalent end of things, under the best of circumstances, but still) has a massively significant management component, something that gets overlooked for various interesting reasons (although at least that slows the spread of managerialism into the field, on the teaching end at least – it’s definitely taking over administration and ed policy, though, and is starting to dribble down from there . . )

95

engels 05.01.08 at 1:41 pm

You define ‘good management’ (#65) as maximising employee productivity. Assuming that treating your employees in a morally acceptable way can get in the way of raising their productivity (and I think this is indisputable) there are two ways to outperform as a manager: to be more efficient at raising productivity in morally neutral ways or to be more prepared to be an arsehole. To the extent that ‘good management’ in your sense is achieved by the second it is not a ‘skill’ but a vice.

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ejh 05.01.08 at 1:43 pm

In general, folks – I think we’re all aware that there is a lot of bad management out there. There is a lot of bad food out there too, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no such skill as cooking.

That’s so, but I think possibly the difference with amangement is that I’m sceptical that the management skills that do exist can be put into practice without consierable knowledge of the people involved and the work that they do. And I suspect that thinking otherwise is likely to lead one to grief rather more often than not.

I don’t necessarily agree with EJH that the general quality of management hasn’t improved over the last twenty years

I think it’d be a hard point to prove either way, but at the same time wouldn’t we have noticed if it had got significantly better? I am sure that there are things that happen now that didn’t much happen twenty years ago, but whether they actually make much difference, or whether it’s generally tick-boxing in practice….I don’t know.

You said something interesting earlier:

I’ll tell you what the world outside is often really contemptuous of; computer programmers who try to run companies despite having no organisational or people skills. The small software company run by its engineers which crashes and burns for lack of basic management is a cliche of the industry.

I’m sure this is true and that the view that managers are entirely extraneous, or devoted only to bullying people and impressing their own managers, is false. You don’t just need managers to bugger off and get out of the way. On the other hand, a great deal of a manager’s genuine purpose, in my experience, is enabling one to get one with one’s job, clearing obstacles so that this can happen an so on. I used to do a job in Oxford and after a reorganisation, my boss was in Bury St Edmunds. Brilliant, you might think, and it was, for about a week. After that it was impossible and stupid, because there wasn’t anybody about who could make a decision or talk to a supplier.

Isn’t chris y at #88 identifying the Peter Principle? It’s a hard one to get around.

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ejh 05.01.08 at 1:45 pm

Incidentally, I possess a management qualification: I have an MA in Information and Library Management. Personally I’d rather have one in Librarianiship, but that wasn’t at all the trend at the end of the Nineities…

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engels 05.01.08 at 1:48 pm

(Ok, you actually defined as maximising long-term profits, but exactly the same argument goes through.)

99

Dan S. 05.01.08 at 2:49 pm

tick-boxing

First dogfighting, now this? Enough with the exploitation of animals in the name of sport!

And anyway, how does one find gloves small enough?

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Daniel 05.01.08 at 2:53 pm

98: it goes through, but I question the empirical importance of this. In all cases where managers do achieve their objectives by behaving in a morally unacceptable way to their workers, there are witnesses to it, and in most of those cases, these witnesses talk. I don’t think we’re in the position of having to infer morally unacceptable behaviour through the noisy indicator of higher profits.

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Great Zamfir 05.01.08 at 2:55 pm

I think there is another side to the ‘promote the good people to become bad managers; problem.

If you reward good employees by other means, such as money or other status-enhancing means, you have the serious risk that the high-status non-managers will become a shadow hierarchy that is hard to control and not necessarily good for the organization.

One example is probably in financial trading, where successful traders can be payed better then their direct bosses, and have status. It then becomes hard to find someone with the authority to stop the superstars from taking too much risk.

Academia is probably another example, where status is perhaps measured less in cash, but still definitely around. I recently witnessed a power struggle at my partner’s institute. It was losing money fast, so the university appointed a capable manager, who was not that much of a respected scholar. The disdain against him definitely did not help the necessary reforms.

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abb1 05.01.08 at 3:13 pm

100, I don’t think we’re in the position of having to infer morally unacceptable behaviour through the noisy indicator of higher profits.

I think there are two different phenomena here.

One is a Glengarry Glen Ross sorta thing (“put down that coffee; coffee’s for closers”). Effective and morally unacceptable management style of one individual.

The other is when the whole economy becomes a Glengarry Glen Ross-style operation, like it happened in the 80s and 90s (I don’t know if it still is). In this case being a jerk is simply a requirement; not an accident, but an important qualification for a management position.

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mjc 05.01.08 at 3:22 pm

I work in a place which has just got rid of its “leader” after a disastrous three years, following a decade or so of management by a very competent head. Empirically, there is no doubt in my mind that management skill exists, and both it and its opposite have real effect in the world.

The chief difference between the two was that Mr. Disaster self-consciously and overtly set out to “manage” and to “lead” – i.e., mismanagement, unlike Augustine’s view of evil, is not necessarily an absence of something, but can be a dynamic force in its own right. Ms. Competence, by contrast, was the classic enabler – she saw her job primarily as making everyone else’s easier and making as sure as possible, within limited means, that we had the tools and training and resources to do them. She certainly wanted to change a few things, and did so – but described this once to me as “nudging the elephant”. And she had far less direct experience of our world than the mafiasco (if I can coin a term for those who navigate ever upward, leaving smoking ruins behind) who followed her. All this is to say that successful leadership, as far as I can see, does indeed involve a Kantian sensibility and approach.

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ejh 05.01.08 at 3:46 pm

In all cases where managers do achieve their objectives by behaving in a morally unacceptable way to their workers, there are witnesses to it, and in most of those cases, these witnesses talk.

When you say they talk – do you mean to one another, or that they speak out? Because I can believe the former proposition, but the latter would be on the unlikely side of tendentious.

105

Alex 05.01.08 at 3:51 pm

EJH: I chose the example because it’s one in which a question of generic management has a well-known effect on objective performance in a very specialised context, and is also ideologically neutral (i.e. Anarchist ATC would be as much at home with it as the Ron Paul International Airport).

In various aviation tasks, it’s standard practice to deliberately minimise the difference in experience (known as the cross-cockpit gradient) between the members of a crew or an ATC shift, whilst also setting a lower bound for the total. This is done because an excessive concentration of authority has negative effects on decision making for the whole crew (an interesting lesson in itself).

The solution turns out, however, not to be one from any of the technologies involved, or from psychology, but one of management.

Anyway, regarding abb1’s notion that higher profits imply worse behaviour, I would refer you to J.K. Galbraith’s notion of the bezzle. I would strongly suggest that this kind of toxic management is more likely to create the appearance of profit than the reality; see Enron, much of Soviet industry, the US mortgage market.

106

ajay 05.01.08 at 4:00 pm

Just dropping in to say that

a) saying that everyone in the military “starts as a minion” is both right and wrong in complicated ways which would take far too long to explain; suffice it to say that the organisational hierarchy in the military is far more complicated both in theory and in practice than it is in your average company or university department, for reasons including but not limited to i) history and inertia ii) the need for redundancy iii) the lack of experience (in terms of time) of junior leaders – how many 25-year-olds in your company manage a team of 100 people? this is quite normal in the army – iv) the extreme youth and inexperience of most of the workforce and v) the extreme stresses and weirdnesses of the military life

and

b) anyone who holds up the military as an example of how management should be done is both ignoring the radical differences between the military and all other organisations, and blatantly has never served in the military, because if they had done they wouldn’t be holding it up as an example of any kind of efficiency.

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Mark K. 05.01.08 at 4:58 pm

@92: Belle, I would say yes, to some extent teachable but also very much ‘already there’. I just do not know if ‘from the start’ means ‘born with it’.

In my experience, good management is something that requires learning. Learning the lessons and applying them can be easier if one starts off with a certain temperament or intellectual gifts, but it’s not dependent on them.

I don’t think it’s the kind of learning that lends itself to a formal instructional environment, though. The classroom can support observing and participating in organizational behavior, but kind of like acting or sports or art, management is something one has to observe and practice.

@22: Does anyone know if the word ‘manager’ has always been this much of a synonym for ‘boss’?

I don’t know, but I’ve been nervous about the erosion of the difference between the management function and the policy function in many organizations. I’m a checks and balances, separation of powers kind of guy.

@45: “I am as puzzled as Daniel is by what the Pickwickian difference is supposed to be between managing a department (or a warehouse or an airport) and managing the people in a department.”

I think the point is that managing something means being in control of it. You can indeed control an airport or a warehouse, but you can’t control people (not all of them, not all of the time). They have, you could say, minds of their own.

I often say that I manage a library, not the people in it. What I mean is that I’m responsible for the library meeting standards, achieving goals, serving needs, etc. I’m the steward of the institution’s values and intentions. The people who work in the library have their own motivations and convictions and desires and needs, which rarely line up exactly with the institution’s. Sometimes they don’t even come close. “Managing people” says to me that I “bring them into line,” I “enforce the vision.” Bleh and pfeh. What I do is have conversations about how the institution and the people can have mutually beneficial relationships, which change and develop over time.

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Mark K. 05.01.08 at 5:57 pm

In @45 of my comment above, the second paragraph starting “I think the point is that managing something means being in control of it” was supposed to be an italicized quote too. Sorry!

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steve-roberts 05.01.08 at 6:22 pm

“meat robots”
What a telling phrase ! Almost worth scrolling through the comment storm.

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abb1 05.01.08 at 6:27 pm

105, I didn’t say anything about profits, it was probably engels. But I think it’s clear that a particular set of conditions under which market economy operates determines general practices, styles of management, and personalities (‘skills’) of the managers.

In the old days, for example, they wanted loyalty, proficiency, steady performance. Then the Reagan revolution (the decline of union power) led to a massive crackdown on blue-collar labor: cutting wages and benefits, uncertainty, intimidation, etc. That’s a completely different kind of management, the kind of management that creates a wave of workplace massacres. Now it’s all that plus globalization, outsourcing. Your objective might happen to be getting rid of all your white-collar underlings and negotiating an agreement with an outside service provider 10,000 miles away. Happens all the time. So, does being able to write a good service agreement and to get rid of your people without getting shot make you a good manager?

111

Ralph Hitchens 05.01.08 at 8:49 pm

“Assigning airplanes to runways is management, management of airplanes and runways.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is a professional function having nothing to do with the topic at hand, which is management of people and delivery of aggregate results.

I think good management is rare because it involves taking ownership — personal ownership — of two things: deliverables for which your organization is responsible, and the people who produce those deliverables. If you do the second task well, you’re probably 85% of the way toward success in the first. Taking ownership of your people means making their workplace concerns and their career aspirations primary concerns for you. This is harder than it sounds. But if your people know that they are important to you, there’s little that you can’t ask of them. And if they believe they’re of little or no importance to you, it’s going to be very hard for you to achieve any long-term success.

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Great Zamfir 05.01.08 at 9:32 pm

Ralph, the original post is about a quote that says:

“[the myth of management] claims that people can be managed like warehouses and airports”

To make any sense of this sentence, we have to assume the writer was using ‘management’ in a wider meaning than ‘management of people’.

Think ‘time management’, or press ctrl-alt-del to see the ‘task manager’. The professional function you mention can well be called ‘aircraft management’.

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Great Zamfir 05.01.08 at 9:39 pm

BTW, could you explain to me what ‘ownership’ means in your context? I assume you are not suggesting that a good manager owns the products of his company, let alone his workers?

Although I can imagine that a slave-based system where the manager buys everything his department makes would keep costs down and sales up… :)

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freight train 05.01.08 at 11:32 pm

I’m not sure if it’s helpful to jump in with another account of management at this point, but here’s one anyway:

I work in event production. I started out as a grunt – moving boxes, loading trucks. After a year or two, I saw that most stagehands don’t want to figure out the big picture. They want to stand in a corner and coil cable and then push boxes, and to know that if they do that as well as they can, no big problems will arise and they can wrap up without too hard a push and then have a beer. It’s not that they’re dumb (many are more skilled than I am) – they’re just not interested in the big picture. That’s why they took the job they have. But when I started making suggestions, based on observing the big picture, about how to make the day easy, everyone was happy to go along, once they decided the suggestions were good ones. One thing led to another, and now I’m production manager.

The point of that story is that management, perhaps, consists of being interested in integrating all the moving parts (where parts includes people, both physically and with regard to their temperaments). Being a manager bleeds into being a boss, as you have to be able to direct people based on your insights about the big picture. But in a sense, you’re there to serve the workers, by making sure the conditions obtain for them to do the best job possible, as easily as possible. I don’t consider myself “above” my stagehands. Their job is to move boxes. My job is to make sure no obstacles – physical, personality-based, logistical, etc – get in the way of their moving boxes. Neither of us could do the show without the other. And they know they need someone doing my job as much as I need people doing theirs.

(As a related note, I also have a degree in analytical philosophy, and not to troll, but based on what I saw in academia versus what I’ve seen in the workaday world, the idea of academics pronouncing on what’s effective management is a hoot.)

115

Tony Healy 05.02.08 at 12:29 am

Daniel, the relevant data with respect to Microsoft and Google management cultures is not the web page for Google’s board or Ballmer’s background, but the fact that the founders of both companies were engineers. [1] The result has been an insistence on engineering expertise in engineering management roles, even for the CEO, in Google’s case.

The fact that both now have lots of MBAs doesn’t change the original engineering emphasis. It may well change those companies’ future prospects though. Vista, for example, might turn out to be an example of the effect of too many MBAs.

The experience of those and other successful software companies provides a strong counter to your claim of a generic management skill, especially when contrasted with software companies and projects run by those without engineering expertise.

If your claim was true, then a generic MBA could slot in and become a manager of a drilling platform, a software project, an advertising agency, a physics department or an infantry company. But that is just not the case. None of those environments appoint MBAs as such to those roles.

Your claim that “the small software company run by its engineers which crashes and burns for lack of basic management” sounds more like cliché of economists or MBAs. In reality, only a small proportion of engineers/programmers start programming companies and, when they do, they generally achieve slow but steady success. Sometimes, as in the case of Google, Microsoft and others, they achieve spectacular success.

Possibly you’re referring to dot.com disasters, but they bear out my point. The distinguishing characteristic of the dot.com disasters was that they were created by MBAs, graphic artists and similar people.

There are some MBAs who are useful. Bezos is brilliant. Gates of course married one.

1. Engineer in the sense of software engineer.

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Nada 05.02.08 at 4:50 am

Synopsis:
– There are things that can be taught and things that can only be learned.
— If the Democratic leadership understood that, McCain would be gone. But then again Bush would never have made it into the White House.

117

Daniel 05.02.08 at 6:29 am

The result has been an insistence on engineering expertise in engineering management roles, even for the CEO, in Google’s case.

Well no. Their Vice President of “People Operations”, for example, is a lifetime HR professional with a background in management consulting. Their Vice President of “Business Operations” is also an ex management consultant. Their Senior Vice President of “Product Management” is a guy with a great big track record of managing important technology products, who’s an MBA with a background in economics.

The fact that both now have lots of MBAs doesn’t change the original engineering emphasis.

Well yes it does. That was the point of hiring them.

It may well change those companies’ future prospects though. Vista, for example, might turn out to be an example of the effect of too many MBAs.

Oh stick it up your ass, Dilbert. You are now visibly trying to have it both ways. Ballmer has been in charge of managing Microsoft since the 1980s, anyway.

If your claim was true, then a generic MBA could slot in and become a manager of a drilling platform, a software project, an advertising agency, a physics department or an infantry company.

No, I specifically explained why this wasn’t the case.

In reality, only a small proportion of engineers/programmers start programming companies and, when they do, they generally achieve slow but steady success.

[…]

Possibly you’re referring to dot.com disasters, but they bear out my point. The distinguishing characteristic of the dot.com disasters was that they were created by MBAs, graphic artists and similar people.

please, you’re killing me.

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abb1 05.02.08 at 7:33 am

I worked for a couple of dot-coms. Created and built by engineers they needed a professional CEO to take them to IPO. The main ‘skill’ the new CEO brings is partying with, playing golf with and being on the first-name basis with a bunch of Wall-Street ‘analysts’. Connections, cronyismus vulgaris.

That’s fine, we all understand this skill, it’s important. But then they tend to bring their friends – the CFOs, CTOs, COOs – aboard, and kill that start-up spirit, kill the company. Not to mention a lot of really stupid MBA stuff they do in the process; imbecile branding campaigns, buying useless small companies, hiring – firing consultants periodically depending on what the forrester says this month, fabricating quarterly reports (this one is not stupid, allows them to sell their stock options). Then they sell the company, get their millions and move on.

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reason 05.02.08 at 8:47 am

I think the hostility to managers, comes not because of the claim that it is a special and transportable skill, but because managers like to try capture all the value created in corporations by people with other skills and claim it as their own. Is the manager in a doctor’s practice the one who creates all the value?

I prefer a peer-to-peer, people have different specialitites and create value for each other. A technologist needs to have work prioritised, resources made available and co-ordination with other teams made. Both the technologist and the manager require each other. It is actually in the technologists interest to realise the manager has seperate skills as he does and can add value to what he does. The problem has arisen because the manager claims to be his superior!

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reason 05.02.08 at 8:48 am

Should read peer-to-peer model

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reason 05.02.08 at 8:53 am

Freight train said the same thing I saw before – just a little more concretely.

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dsquared 05.02.08 at 10:14 am

The problem has arisen because the manager claims to be his superior!

Or alternatively, because the technologist doesn’t want to take responsibility for decisions but also doesn’t want to have to abide by the decisions of other people. Which is fine, but you don’t run a business that way.

123

Barry 05.02.08 at 1:12 pm

tony healy: “If your claim was true, then a generic MBA could slot in and become a manager of a drilling platform, a software project, an advertising agency, a physics department or an infantry company. But that is just not the case. None of those environments appoint MBAs as such to those roles.”

No – consider sports coaching as an analogy. How well would a very successful baseball coach do as a football coach? He’d do far better than you or I, but not as good as an experienced football coach.

Dsquared’s theory is quite compatible with a model: successful manager = general management skill/experience + relevant professional experience and training.

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roac 05.02.08 at 2:10 pm

A simple test for “leadership,” formulated during my long-ago stint in the Army and not subsequently falsified: A middle-manager has a chance of getting his/her subordinates to put the goals of the organization ahead of their personal interests if they are convinced that he/she is doing so as well. If they believe that manager’s first priority is advancing his/her own interests with his/her own superiors, no.

It may be possible to learn how to fool people in this regard, in which case leadership is a matter of skill rather than character. Personally, I doubt this very much.

125

CK Dexter 05.02.08 at 2:40 pm

On this issue of leadership as a management skill–I think it’s vulnerable to Kantian-style criticisms of the sort we’ve seen applied more broadly.

Kant’s notion of the human being as end is also called autonomy, which we might describe as “self-leadership.” The peculiar part is that one leads oneself only through acting in accordance with duty rather than self _or other_-interest.

This means there’s no form of leadership that doesn’t fail this ethical test. Either leadership directly violates autonomy by promoting in the follower a lack of self-determination, or it motivates followers by appealing to shared interest vs self-interest, which still qualifies (at least on the admittedly controversial Kantian model) as a failure of autonomy.

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dsquared 05.02.08 at 2:43 pm

If true (and I don’t know from Kant), the proposition “This means there’s no form of leadership that doesn’t fail this ethical test” would be a problem with the ethical test, wouldn’t it?

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paul 05.02.08 at 3:19 pm

Now, what’s wrong with my “automated airport”, exactly? I bet this is how most airports work most of the time: the workers (including middle managers) come, perform their routine, and go home; top managers nap or polish their ppt presentation skills or are away on important “business trips”.

Maybe airports that only handle freight. But (from observation as a user) the typical airport involves a pretty much endless sequence of exceptions to routine. Passengers arrive without ID or with luggage that doesn’t meet the requirements for going aboard the aircraft, aircraft arrive late or early because of weather, staffing or other random events (once at the local airport there was an announcement that an outgoing flight had been cancelled even before the incoming plane arrived; it pulled up to the gate with a huge shatter mark on the windshield from a bird strike). Staff call in sick, show up drunk, quit in a tiff — when you have hundreds or thousands of people working at an establishment, and thousands or tens of thousands passing through every day, even a tiny absolute rate of anomalies means something will be going haywire on a regular basis.

But one thing that talking about managing airports does is make clear the difference between the two common meanings of management, namely day-to-day operation and overall direction. Most good organizations separate these functions, because the mindsets required for both are very different. The people who are good at day-to-day management typically want to regularize things, while the ones who are good at overall direction rtypically want to shake them up. (That’s why publications, for example, typically have an editor and a managing editor. Oh, and a publisher too.)

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abb1 05.02.08 at 3:35 pm

“Endless sequence of exceptions to routine” is, of course, just another routine. After two weeks on the job solving these little exception will become as boring as turning the same bolt on an assembly line all day.

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belle le triste 05.02.08 at 3:50 pm

how does that kantian test — as understood by ppl who know something abt kant eg not me — deal with eg yr piano teacher forcing you to practice scales a lot: short-term = “grrr argh this is so boring i am not a robot where is my self-determination eh” —> long-term = “ooh i can play whatever i like now inc.some stuff better than my teacher yay self-determination yay for being made to do stuff i didn’t want to”

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ejh 05.02.08 at 4:28 pm

How well would a very successful baseball coach do as a football coach? He’d do far better than you or I, but not as good as an experienced football coach.

As it happens something not dissimilar happened in English association football when the successful rugby union coach Clive Woodward was offered a coaching post at Southampton by their then chairman, the ludicrous Rupert Lowe. It was an unmitigated disaster for all concerned, something which Woodward’s friends in the papers blamed on resentful football managers and which everybody else blamed on Lowe and Woodward.

Incidentally, if you want a field which nearly always demonstrates that it is crucial to know the field in which you are managing, you could do worse than football. Clubs are nearly always run by people extremely successful in their own field who think this means that they can succeed elsewhere. Remarkably enough, they nearly always do not.

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Dan Goodman 05.02.08 at 5:47 pm

“You manage an airport by scheduling/assigning planes to runways and gates in the most efficient way possible. You can optimize/manage a warehouse and airport without paying any attention to people who work there.” Sure — just like you can do it without paying any attention to weather. The Soviet Union tried running everything that way.

Speaking of weather: O’Hare is closed because of bad weather noticeably more often than Minneapolis-St. Paul is. They operate under the same Federal rules and regulations, and MSP has worse weather — so in abb1’s world, it should be MSP which is closed more often.

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abb1 05.02.08 at 6:32 pm

The Soviet Union tried running everything that way.

Yup, I know, they also had cute kittens for breakfast and puppies for lunch over there.

What the hell are you talking about, Dan Goodman and the rest of y’all? You, people, are like zombies. What, for fuck’s sake, is so controversial about optimizing procedures, locations and schedules?

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bernard Yomtov 05.02.08 at 7:53 pm

But then they tend to bring their friends – the CFOs, CTOs, COOs – aboard, and kill that start-up spirit, kill the company. Not to mention a lot of really stupid MBA stuff they do in the process; imbecile branding campaigns, buying useless small companies, hiring – firing consultants periodically depending on what the forrester says this month, fabricating quarterly reports (this one is not stupid, allows them to sell their stock options). Then they sell the company, get their millions and move on.

So after killing the company, they somehow still sell it, get millions, and move on, and you don’t, and they’re the stupid ones?

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abb1 05.02.08 at 8:14 pm

No, of course they aren’t stupid, but most of the MBA crap they do is. They kill the company in the sense that there is no creativity anymore, it becomes a corporation. Yeah, I suppose a dead company is easier to sell, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

And what does it have to do with me anyway? I’m not a manager. Fwiw, I merely give you my impression of the executives I used to work with. If you disagree, give me yours.

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Eric 05.02.08 at 10:46 pm

First, I’d like to agree with part of Daniel’s argument: Management and leadership are real skills, and you can’t run an organization without them. Good MBA programs try to teach these skills.

But I’ve seen a lot of disastrously incompetent MBAs. And these MBAs tend to fail in a small number of ways:

1) MBAs lacking domain-specific knowledge tend to make lousy strategic decisions. For example, Ars Digita’s decision to prematurely announce their Java-based ACS 4.0 very nearly killed the company: It brought sales for their ACS 3.0 product to a screeching halt before a new product was ready.

At the very least, a successful manager must know–and avoid–the clichéd mistakes of their industry.

2) The standard MBA curriculum focuses heavily on manufacturing and large-scale service businesses. This curriculum is heavy on finance, operations research, and other useful subjects. But not all organizations work this way. The military, as mentioned up-thread, is a special case. Less obviously, professional service firms (law, accounting, architecture) also face specialized challenges. The value of a professional service firm lies almost entirely in its people. The day-to-day concerns of such a firm revolve around professional development, senior/junior staff mixes, and project selection.

In this environment, I’ve seen some MBAs thrive–but I’ve also watched Harvard MBAs manage companies straight into the ground. (For a good overview of professional service firm management, see David Maister.)

Oh stick it up your ass, Dilbert.

Daniel, I don’t think that this remark is fair to Tony Healy. Bill Gates was a notoriously hands-on manager, well-known for reading specs and asking hard technical questions. And Microsoft benefited from Gates’ expertise. After all, it’s easy for technical staff to bullshit non-technical managers into dumb decisions. Gates kept this tendency ruthlessly in check.

It would be pretty difficult to argue that Microsoft, today, is as well-managed as it was in the 90s. Headcount is way up, but Vista has been a strategic disaster, and Microsoft has repeatedly failed in their attempts enter new markets.

Mind you, technical CEOs like Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are rare individuals. They posses skills and talents far beyond those of the average engineer. But nonetheless, there is disproportionately high number of such CEOs in technical industries. And I’m not comfortable dismissing this pattern out of hand.

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geoffbro 05.03.08 at 4:35 am

But then they tend to bring their friends – the CFOs, CTOs, COOs – aboard, and kill that start-up spirit, kill the company. Not to mention a lot of really stupid MBA stuff they do in the process

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t necessarily realize that a small, entrepreneurial company can’t necessarily remain exactly the same as it grows. Most successful small companies are founded on an idea – either they have some unique proposition in terms of products or services, or they do a better job of implementing an existing idea. But once the company attains its initial success, it can’t simply continue to do what it’s doing – it needs to change to continue to grow.

Branding campaigns might seem ridiculous, and they might not be executed well, but I’d defy anyone to argue that there’s no value in a successful branding campaign – just look at Apple’s recent success. And ask anyone who’s gone from managing a company of a few dozen individuals to just a few hundred, and they’ll be able to note a lot of significant differences (let alone the prospect of adding a few thousand to the mix).

I assume that the author prefers the culture of a small entrepreneurial firm to that of a larger one, and that’s fine. But it’s silly to think that that preference is transferrable to an objective definition of successful organizations.

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Matt McIrvin 05.03.08 at 5:49 am

Is the President supposed to now be a good manager? Is this then compatible with democracy, given that the corporate model only uses a kind of faux democracy to make people easier to manage.

Yes, I would say, he should be a good manager–he really is the boss of the executive branch of government. That is not the same thing as being the boss of the whole country’s citizens, and part of being a good manager would be to recognize that.

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steve-roberts 05.03.08 at 10:27 am

Freight train “management, perhaps, consists of being interested in integrating all the moving parts (where parts includes people, both physically and with regard to their temperaments)”

Excellent verbalisation, which leads into how MBA’s are useful, in that they learn enough about each facet of the business to deal with the tough issues where everything interacts with everything else, whereas specialists can’t do any better than just duke it out between each other. Of course, some MBAs are better at integration than others, but I have worked for many managers and I would rather work for a good manager than a bad one, and a good trained manager rather than a good untrained manager.

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abb1 05.03.08 at 10:31 am

Geoffbro, first of all, on the conceptual level, I simply don’t buy the premise behind your argument. Why should companies grow? A two hundred people software company can operate very well without enforcing corporate culture and all that shit. And what good does it do if they all merge into Microsoft and Oracle and block all progress for a few decades? Not good. Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.

But even a large company, I dunno, I’m not sure the only way for it to operate is by enforcing strict hierarchical control. I can’t think of any examples right now (I dunno – Bell Labs? Was it managed MBA-style back in its glorious days?), but I certainly hope it’s not so.

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CK Dexter 05.03.08 at 4:50 pm

(126)
“If true (and I don’t know from Kant), the proposition “This means there’s no form of leadership that doesn’t fail this ethical test” would be a problem with the ethical test, wouldn’t it?”

Not at all. That a sophisticated, intelligent, and highly influential ethical philosophy suggests a problem in our ordinary intuitions about “good leadership” gives us cause to critically reevaluate our ordinary intuitions, not the reverse. That doesn’t mean the Kantian view is right, only that common conceptions of leadership are not _necessarily or obviously_ clear or correct.

(129)
“how does that kantian test—as understood by ppl who know something abt kant eg not me—deal with eg yr piano teacher forcing you to practice scales a lot”

I don’t know–maybe someone more knowledgeable about Kant than I can answer? My best guess: in the case of an adult, you aren’t really forced, so it’s not really a case of “following” a “leader” but a self-determined social interaction. In the case of a child who really is forced to do it: either as a child, she is not capable of true autonomy, so it’s appropriate of, if the child is capable of true autonomy, then the teacher (or more likely the parent) is truly reducing the child to a means to their end (usually, their goal for what kind of adult they’d like their child to be).

I think the difference between voluntary instruction and “leadership” is that in the former the instructor provides leadership only given the learner’s autonomous participation, whereas in the standard examples of “leadership” (political and moral, employers, etc.) leaders are distinguished by their ability to influence (usually manipulate) the autonomy of others rather than respond to it.

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bernard Yomtov 05.03.08 at 4:53 pm

abb1,

No doubt MBA’s make mistakes. So do non-MBA’s. Still, I think your complaint has more to do with your personal dislike of working in a corporate environment than with the incompetence of managers who are, by your own description, succeeding at what they set out to accomplish.

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abb1 05.03.08 at 5:32 pm

…has more to do with your personal dislike of working in a corporate environment…

Fair enough, that’s a part of it, but there’s certainly more to it. It’s the things I’ve seen in Eastern Mass in the last two decades.

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bernard Yomtov 05.04.08 at 12:55 am

Fair enough, that’s a part of it, but there’s certainly more to it. It’s the things I’ve seen in Eastern Mass in the last two decades.

I would say a huge mistake in eastern MA was the failure of the minicomputer companies to understand the importance of the personal computer.

An Wang was a physicist, Ken Olsen an engineer. I’m not sure who ran Data General.

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abb1 05.04.08 at 11:41 am

I wasn’t talking about very large companies, necessarily. Being too large is already problematic. Even so, according to wikipedia:

Dr. Wang’s insistence that his son, Fred Wang, succeed him contributed to the company’s failure. Fred Wang was a business school graduate, “but by almost any definition,” wrote Charles C. Kenney, “unsuited for the job in which his father had placed him.” His assignment, first as head of research and development, then as president of the company, led to jealousy and to resignations by key R&D and business personnel.

Anecdotally, at least, a typical story you hear over and over is the one of frustrated talent leaving bloated corporation to start their own company. It grows, quickly becomes the leader in its niche, then the suits take over and poof – the cycle is completed. The suits are never satisfied, they want to expand, expand more, kill the competition, control the world; you should hear their quarterly psych-up speeches.

Maybe this is how it is supposed to be, I don’t know. I hope not.

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abb1 05.04.08 at 12:05 pm

Yeah, that’s it, that’s the explanation. If you’re an engineer, all you want it to build a good gadget. If you’re a businessman all you want is to grow, to sell this quarter more than the previous quarter, get a bigger share of your market niche, invade the next niche. You don’t care about the gadgets. That’s a conflict right there.

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bernard Yomtov 05.04.08 at 2:22 pm

If you’re an engineer, all you want it to build a good gadget. If you’re a businessman all you want is to grow, to sell this quarter more than the previous quarter, get a bigger share of your market niche, invade the next niche.

There’s always some conflict of that type. But note that it was the failure to invade the next niche that did these companies in.

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Barry 05.05.08 at 7:35 pm

““Endless sequence of exceptions to routine” is, of course, just another routine. After two weeks on the job solving these little exception will become as boring as turning the same bolt on an assembly line all day.”

Posted by abb1

After demonstrating that he doesn’t have a clue, the guy goes on to show that he’s actually anti-clueful, capable of destroying any clues which get too close.

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abb1 05.05.08 at 11:10 pm

You don’t have a clue. You show that you’re actually anti-clueful, capable of destroying any clues. And you have a very small dick. And your mom is fat.

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