Sarah Sheard's Thoughts and Theories

Friday, July 07, 2006

Sarah's Thoughts on Managing Complex Systems

A quote from a complexity conference:

You can only manage simple tasks. You can't manage someone doing complex tasks, you can only support them.

This is fairly odd, in that for the last ten years or so I've been thinking, and even telling my bosses (at some risk!) that I neither can nor should be managed. Perhaps the two are related?

I suppose I have sensed all along that in order to "manage" someone you really have to have a handle on all the ins and outs, the whys and wherefores of what they are doing. You really have to know more about what they are doing than they do. If you have a senior person working for you, and you give them a significantly responsible job, then you give up authority over what they are doing, and you stop having more knowledge than they do over what they do. At that point, they have to be self-managing. I agree with the quote. Your role now has to be support, not management.

This also fits with the "inverted pyramid" concept of the modern knowledge-based corporation. The thought is that the job of the CEO is to support his/her executives, and the job of those executives is to support their senior managers. In fact, the job of each manager is to support those people who report directly to him or her. If indeed those people are performing complex tasks, then the quote above explains why that is true, they must be supported and not managed.

Otherwise the idea that you are managing them is illusion and you, the one having the illusion, are in trouble.

Sarah

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