Post-Corona: What Management Posture Do You Wish For?

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar June 06, 2020

The Corona-crisis challenged all companies to reflect on their way of working. The most obvious example is the sudden and mandatory move to remote working. Even at the most traditional companies, remote working is suddenly the default. But should that be all we change? Or does this crisis give companies a golden opportunity to think beyond forced fixes? For example, should they think about how they could update their (mostly) outdated management models? And if you wanted to do this, what alternatives are there?

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Let’s turn to Henry Mintzberg and the excellent ‘managing continuum’ he described in his classic, ‘Managing’ (2009).

Mintzberg’s continuum runs from the extreme of ‘only managers’ to the other of ‘no managers’. But these two should be ignored, he says. “We should ignore the two extremes – of managers totally in charge at one end and managing entirely without managers at the other – and consider instead what are labelled maximal managing, participative managing, shared managing, distributed managing, supportive managing, and minimal managing.

Let’s discuss these one by one.

Maximal managing

First on Mintzberg’s continuum is maximal managing. He says: “In some respects, Fayol was right, roughly speaking: there are managers who plan, organize, coordinate, command, and control. Let’s call theirs’ maximal managing, to contrast it with minimal managing.” It resonates with the style of traditional command-and-control companies – the often-dubbed ‘machine organizations’.

Many companies today are ‘machine organizations’, despite decades of predictions that they would become extinct more quickly. Mintzberg: “The gurus of management have been telling us for years that machine organizations are disappearing, and with them their maximal managing. Well, look around – at the auto assembly lines, textile factories, supermarkets, call centres and the clerks abundant in so many offices in government, insurance and elsewhere.” This is as true today as much as it was a decade ago when Mintzberg made this observation.

Participative managing

A small step away from maximal managing comes participative managing. Mintzberg: “Participation occurs when senior managers pass some of their power down the hierarchy (Likert 1961, McGregor 1960, and many more). But that usually means to other managers. Moreover, the senior managers who give such power can easily take it back: the other people participate with a clear sense of where the ultimate authority is anchored.”

This kind of managing is often associated with terms like ‘empowerment,’ or ‘decentralization.’ Mintzberg: “People who have a job to do shouldn’t need to be ‘empowered’ by their managers… Decentralization is often taken to mean a diffusion of power from a headquarters to the managers who run the business divisions. But passing power in a big organization from a few managers in the centre to a few more dispersed units hardly constitutes a serious diffusion of power.”

Shared managing

Shared managing means that one managerial job is not done by one person but shared among several people. Mintzberg: “In its simplest form, which can also be called co-management, two people share a single job, whether formally or informally.” Over recent decades many traditional companies introduced a version of this in senior ranks by establishing the so-called COO (Chief Operating Officer) role. In these companies the CEO typically focused on the external aspects of the managerial job, and the COO focused on the internal aspects of the same managerial job.

In more radical forms, this is the same managerial job shared among multiple persons, which Mintzberg dubs as team management. Mintzberg: “Team management extends shared management to several people… A more elaborate example is provided by the state of Switzerland, which is governed by seven people who rotate the position of head of state on an annual basis. Switzerland works rather well as a country, even if most of its citizens reportedly have not been able to name its head of state.”

Post-Corona: What Management Posture Do You Wish For?
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Distributed managing

Distributed managing goes a step further and distributes managerial duties even more widely. It treats leadership as something quite natural, with decisions made by whoever has the relevant expertise, skills or responsibility. Mintzberg: “Distributed managing, which could also be called ‘collective managing’, diffuses responsibility for some managerial roles more widely, to various non-managers in the unit. Compare, for example, the classic kibbutz with Switzerland. The latter has its inner circle of seven, while any member of the kibbutz may be rotated into a managerial role, if temporarily.”

This posture of management is often associated with natural ‘leadership’ phenomena. The typical illustration is birds flocking in unison. Indeed, Mintzberg uses geese as inspiration: “Look up the next time a flock of geese flies by in V formation. The leadership changes periodically, as the goose in the front gets tired and falls back. No doubt all the other geese find the one in the lead greatly empowering, perhaps even terribly charismatic – for a while.”

In traditional organizations this kind of management is often used to boost innovation – think about practices like the ‘15% rule’ of 3M, the ’20% rule’ of Google, or the ‘skunkworks’ pioneered by Lockheed. With these kinds of practices anyone in the organization can use their time to initiate (or join) projects from which major innovations can emerge, often with minimal resources.

Mintzberg: “Certain companies have made these skunkworks more formal by designating certain managers with the authority to provide budgets and time off for people with interesting ideas. In effect, the latter are granted a managerial role without having a managerial job.” If this managing posture boosts innovation, why not use it throughout the entire organization?

Supportive managing

The management posture of supportive managing is the first on Mintzberg’s continuum that considers a reduced role for formal managing. It is often associated with managing ‘professionals’ – people able to work without much supervision. In our book we argue that the workforce of the 21st century should be treated as a group of adults, and no longer as a bunch of kids—in other words, as professionals. Mintzberg: “What these professionals especially need… is support and protection, so that they can accomplish their work with minimum disturbance.”

So, what do managers do in supportive managing? Mintzberg: “If non-managers do more of the managerial roles, then managers themselves can do less… Managers work with outside stakeholders to ensure a steady flow of resources and other means of support, while buffering many of the outside pressures coming in… Does the responsibility for managing remain? Of course, it does because these servants maintain responsibility for the performance of the unit, even in those cases where they lack hierarchical control over some of the people who work there.”

Some of our Bucket List companies showed this posture of managing all too well: Zingermans, Patagonia, and Spotify are examples of a long list of progressive companies striving for a supportive leadership culture in their organizations. In his book Mintzberg predicts the rise of this particular posture. “Consider carefully this form called supportive managing because we are going to be seeing a lot more of it.” Even though his prediction was made a decade ago, it is too bad that this prediction has not come more alive yet, at least not to the levels we hoped it would. Now is the perfect moment to make it happen after all.

Minimal managing

The last posture of Mintzberg’s continuum is called minimal managing. In this posture, the need for managers is minimal but evident. Mintzberg: “Here there is hardly anything left to manage, sometimes hardly even an organization as such. But there does remain some coherent activity in need of coordination, and that requires some managing… Think of the World Wide Web, the Linux Operating System, Wikipedia – so-called open source systems.” But also think about Bucket List companies like Haier and Buurtzorg. Beside a small group of top managers, there is not one other formal managerial job to be found there.

But why is the need for a small group of top managers in this kind of systems still evident? Mintzberg: “These are the ultimate adhocracies, which engage the full creative potential of broad communities. People come and go; they enter, make changes, and exit, but are self-managed organizations, almost. Someone had to get them started, and set and enforce the rules of entry, change, and exit; and someone has to keep the whole thing coherent.”

This raises the question of whether managers are necessary at all. From our observation and research, it is clear via the examples of Haier and Buurtzorg, that the answer is yes. But managers exist in dramatically reduced numbers compared to most traditional organizations that exist today.

What do you wish for?

I would argue the majority of today’s organizations can be placed on the left side of Mintzberg’s continuum. But I feel more inspired by the right side!

What about you? What management posture do you wish for in your post-corona workplace?

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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