Is Management About People?
“Management,” says the speaker “is about people.” He pauses, slowly surveying the roomful of executives, and then continues. “It is about getting the most out of people, about motivating extraordinary performance.”
The speaker is a famous management guru. His provocative presentations command high fees and the rapt attention of his audience. Looking around me, I see heads nod slightly in agreement. Something about those nods sparks a quick mental image of a preacher reminding his congregation that God loves us all. The guru’s audience, like the preacher’s congregation, nods in agreement at the repetition of something they already believe.
My own inclination is to question pronouncements from on high. Hearing the preacher, I might think “Did God love Hitler?” Similarly, the guru’s statement makes me ask “Is management really ‘about people’?” Warming to the challenge of debate, I imagine my own argument:
People have been managing other people since the beginning of human history. It seems likely that the fundamental skill of working with and motivating other people has not changed much in tens of thousands of years. Modern managers have no ‘secrets’ for managing others that were not known to scribes of Ancient Egypt, Alexander the Great, the Medici Bankers, or Henry V at Agincourt.
However, despite this clear continuity in human skill at ‘managing people,’ something truly dramatic has occurred in the past 150 years. First, our civilization has become so productive that almost all of its members are incredibly rich by comparison to any previous age and few engage in any arduous labor. This incredible wealth has been created by a revolutionary mixture of science, engineering, organized markets, a dose of political and social liberty, and management. At the heart of this mixture are complex organizations, exhibiting levels of scale, complexity, specialization, coordination, and systematic innovation far beyond anything achieved in earlier times.
To say that management is “about people” is a truth that misses the point. The extraordinary performance of today’s society is not because people try harder than they did in past centuries. It is because we do things differently, including management. Modern managers do much more than motivate and control behavior. Among other things, they organize and direct innovation and they analyze and design better ways of organizing activities.
In the here and now, the management guru’s speech draws to a close. As he unclips his microphone, the audience rises in applause. He bows his head in appreciation. I rise with the rest, clapping my hands together. I have not heard the last ten minutes of his talk, but it does not matter. He has done his job. He has made me think.
Let's do a simple mind experiment: suppose there is another parallel universe which started exactly the same as ours at 30000 B.C. Will they evolve the same management as we have today?
Thanks for the insightful post, Richard. I hope you can keep sharing your wisdom here and even some nuggets on Twitter too for maximum reach as more people would benefit of thinking this kind of thing through.