Knowledge worker organizations are increasingly more central to our service economy. These companies, or departments within companies, typically design and build things that are complex both in content and process, like software or clever new products. Today’s knowledge workers are more highly trained, intelligent, engaged and motivated than the laborers for whom management science was invented almost 100 years ago. And in many ways, those time-honored notions of managerial best practices actually backfire with them.
Over the last five years, I’ve worked with hundreds of these organizations -- mostly in marketing and technology; many of them startups of 30 or less -- and we’ve demonstrated time and again that they run better when there is less managing, or what I call “lazy” managing. While you or your fellow managers may not aspire to such a title, those who have mastered this style understand that this less active management inspires their teams to performance improvements in virtually every key metric.
Doing less managing also has other benefits, as one of the most expensive decisions every business makes is to hire or promote someone to be a manager. Promoting, in particular, often decreases productivity by taking a key player out of the game. Less managing means you need fewer managers.
One example of lazy managing is making the shift to let teams to manage how and when the work gets done. This intensifies their ownership and engagement and results in a more efficient organization.
Teams can out-manage managers.
Not long ago, I met with the owner/CEO of a small company that installs high-end home entertainment equipment. His team had grown, and he was managing 15 installers, all of whom had MacGyver-like ability to solve the thorny problems that go along with installing the latest technologies in expensive homes. With so many on his team, scheduling had become a nightmare. The CEO was agonizing every Sunday to set up the week’s production schedule. The escalating demand of managing was eating into his much-needed weekend.
The harder he managed, the harder the job got. Because scheduling and coordinating workflow for knowledge work is a task more effectively left to teams themselves, I suggested that he “get lazy” and give the job to the team. So he let go of everything except one task -- he identifies every job that needs to be done in the coming week on a sticky note.
When the team arrives on Monday morning, he puts the notes on the conference room table. Then he leaves the team to work out how best to assign and schedule their work for the week. They’re able to do this faster and better than he could. In addition, their job performance has improved significantly. They get more done because they schedule themselves, and in doing so, they take ownership.
The CEO had assumed that all managing required an active manager. Had we not spoken, he might have even decided that he needed to hire or promote one. Instead, he learned to let his teams take the reins and discovered the tremendous power of self-managing teams.
Lazy managers are really, really awesome managers.
In the process, he learned how to become both a lazy and an awesome manager. He learned how to do less so his teams could do more. That’s the trick with knowledge workers. They feel dignity and inspiration when asked to apply their expertise to solve problems.
Teams do need guidance, direction and priority to frame decision making, but they don’t need to be told how and when to do the job. So if you lead a company, department or group of knowledge workers, get your lazy on. Give your teams the tough job of designing and deploying the work. They’ll likely surprise and delight you.