David Brewster

The Problem with Management

by David Brewster

Last month I bought myself a new bicycle. You should see what you get for your money these days. The shaky old pushbike has developed, thanks to the constant evolution of ideas over more than 100 years, into a sleek, finely tuned machine that practically rides itself. If only we could say the same thing about management.

Apart from easier and more reliable cycling, the evolution of ideas has given us longer lives, safer cars, labour saving devices, reduced poverty, reality television (whoops!), unlimited access to information and instant communication. The evolution of ideas has also given us fairer workplaces, fantastic access to training and education, increased real wages and a shorter working week. The average working week dropped from 50 hours to between 35 and 40 hours during the 20th century.

Clearly Charles Duell of the U.S. Office of Patents had it wrong when he claimed, in 1899, that "everything that can be invented has been invented". The modern Western lifestyle (for those of us lucky enough to enjoy it) is practically unrecognisable from what it was 20 – let alone 100 – years ago.

But there is a problem here. Hands up if you, or any manager you know, works only 35 hours a week. Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures put the average for male managers at 51 hours per week, females at 44 hours per week. Certainly most of the managers I come across – male and female, and in small businesses and large – are more likely working a 19th century 50-hour week as a minimum.

Running from meeting to meeting or job to job, clearing the email, dealing with the latest crisis, navigating the latest bureaucratic initiative and finally folding up the laptop and heading home with the mobile phone to the ear after a 10+ hour day. This is the lot of the typical modern manager.

It is hardly surprising that increasing numbers of managers are deciding that the only way to achieve 'work-life balance' is to 'downshift' out altogether. Various studies in the U.S.A., Europe and Australia show a growing number of managers are deciding to leave demanding roles and voluntarily reduce their hours – and income – with less onerous work. A Newspoll/Australia Institute study in Australia in 2002 identified that 23% of Australian workers aged 30 to 59 had taken this option in the previous 10 years. A similar survey in Britain identified 25% of the workforce as downshifters; 27% of middle to senior managers were amongst their ranks. Other surveys have shown that the trend to downshifting shows steady growth. The reasons for this trend are varied but boil down, in the majority of cases, to the failure of the workplace to provide the flexibility and fulfilment people are looking for.

Perhaps you are starting to understand why I see a problem with management? Somewhere between the long hours and the trend to downshifting lies a large number of managers – and other workers – who are dissatisfied with their lot and, as a result, not working as effectively as they could.

It's not that management has missed out when it comes to the evolution of ideas. Go into any business bookshop and you'll see innumerable ideas inches deep on the shelves. lists over 56,000 books on the topic of management. But on the evidence, you would have to say that something is wrong when it comes to putting these ideas into practice.

The modern manager should be racing along on the organisational equivalent of a modern bicycle, getting where he or she wants to go quickly and more easily than ever before. Instead, a rusty old rattler that only goes in circles seems to be a better analogy. Which raises the question: is the problem the bike itself, or the way it is being ridden?

The Upside Down Manager

Something strange happens inside most organisations when a manager, particularly a senior manager, is away. A feeling of freedom exists amongst the manager's subordinates similar to that which is felt when another department – the current 'problem child' – is attracting all the senior management attention. (If you are a senior manager and you don't believe me, cast your mind back to the days when you lived on one of the lower floors.) Somewhere behind the cause of these liberations lies the heart of the problem with management.

Every manager has a job to get done. No matter what his or her rank, or what size the organization, a manager is accountable for making sure that something happens. It might be generating sales at a certain level, keeping the customers happy, achieving target production rates, balancing the books, implementing a strategy – or all of these and more.

Each discrete part of an organisation (department, section, what-you-will) is like a bicycle; its manager the cyclist. The manager's job is to maintain the various parts of the cycle and keep them working together as best she can. She also needs to ride the bike in such a way that it is kept moving as smoothly and efficiently as possible. To get the best out of her machine over a long period, the manager needs to maintain a rhythm. Even the best cyclists can't ride flat-out over a distance. Rather, they find a pedalling speed (cadence) which is both productive and comfortable, and they work hard to preserve it.

As the manager rides along, she maintains a feel for what's going on underneath her seat. She listens out for rattles; for any sign of grinding or squeaking or rubbing. She also keeps a watchful eye on the road ahead and tries to anticipate obstacles which threaten to break that precious rhythm.

The problem with management – that which leaves managers in the 19th century as I discussed earlier – is that it is often very hard to keep the cadence steady. The obstacles are just too numerous: information overload, communication breakdowns, complex technologies and corporate bureaucracy; unending and ever-growing compliance requirements; time compression, relentless competition and cost pressures. All of these forcing her to get more done with less.

On top of all these things (and this, I believe, is the crux of the matter) is a management culture which is upside-down. A culture which tends to result in managers at all levels spending more time working for their superior – that is, managing upwards – than they spend actually getting their job done. In effect, managers are often being asked to maintain and ride their bicycle as efficiently as they can – while at the same time being frequently asked by their superiors to stop and get off so they can discuss progress and direction. When this happens, no matter how good the productivity tools available, managers work longer and longer hours and many grow more and more dissatisfied with their work.

Cycling teams take a different approach to achieving success. They focus all their effort on one thing: helping their lead rider to maintain his or her rhythm and, ultimately, win the race. Seems to me that approach might hold the kernel of a solution to the problem with management.

Winning "le Tour"

In early July this year, cyclist Lance Armstrong will try to win a record breaking sixth straight Tour de France. Winning this three-week, 3500km event just once requires overcoming enormous obstacles. So to have won it five times on end is simply awesome. How does he do it? Yes, there is enormous personal preparation and effort involved. But this would amount to little if not for the approach and support of his U.S. Postal Service team.

As I've said, the key to efficient cycling is maintaining a rhythm. So Armstrong, as lead rider, is supported by a bunch of talented fellow cyclists. They do everything they can to help him do just that. The cycling group is assisted, in turn, by a senior management group. This group don't actually cycle. They maintain a 'big picture' strategic view of the race. They remove external obstacles and ensure all the cyclists have the resources they need.

Right up to the team owners, the Postal Service team are all oriented towards a joint goal: helping their lead rider win the event. What they are doing, whether they know it or not, is making a complex and highly competitive race as simple as they possibly can.

They are making it simple by making it easy to understand. Everyone knows who the lead rider is and shares the goal to get that person over the line in first place. Should they succeed in this, they will all win.

They are making it simple by making it easy to do. Senior management make it easy for each cyclist to do his job, so that in turn they can make it easy for the lead rider to do his job.

Simple (adj.) Easily understood or done. (L. simplus)

I suggested earlier that each discrete part of your organisation is analogous to a bicycle with its manager as the cyclist. Put the parts together and you have a structure not dissimilar to that of the U.S. Postal team. One or more of the managers is the 'lead rider'; he or she is in charge of a section which interacts closely with the end customer – a section without whose success your business will not be able to achieve its plan. Others managers and their staff play various support roles. At another level is a senior management group, much like U.S. Postal's.

The problem with management boils down to the fact that few organisations have U.S. Postals dedication to making it simple. Too many managers are riding solo and without clear direction. Too many are constantly stopping to try to work out where they are. Too many teams aren't clear about who the lead rider is, let alone focused on optimising his or her efforts.

Management, at all levels, needs to be more realistic about the complexity of the environment they are operating in. They then need to understand the importance of making it simple. Of having shared goals which are easy to understand. Of focusing maximum effort on making the job of everyone – especially the lead rider – easy to do.

Only then will we start to overcome the problem with management.

Copyright © David Brewster

About the Author
David Brewster

Speaker, writer, advisor and coach, David Brewster, helps managers re-focus on the basics, with lasting benefits to themselves, their customers and their staff. Contact David on (Australia) 03 9388 1650 or 0417 605 826; (Internationally) +61 3 9388 1650 or +61 417 605 826. Email:; Website:

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