Yes, Good Managers Are Manipulators

Are managers manipulators? Yes, I think so.

Nobel Prize-winner Ilya Prigogine discovered that a complex system can only self-organize when there’s a boundary around it. And I believe him, because back in the old days a person actually had to achieve something to win a Nobel Prize.

Self-organization requires that the system is surrounded by a containing boundary. This condition defines the “self” that will be developed during the self-organizing process. [G. Eoyang & D.J. Conway, 1999]

A football team self-organizes within the boundaries of the playing field, and the rules as they are laid down by the football association. A herd of wildebeest self-organizes within the boundaries imposed on it by the South‑African ecosystem in which it lives. Al Qaeda self-organized as a result of Soviet and American interventions in Afghanistan, and within the context of Islamic Sharia law. Without a boundary a system lacks the drive and constraints to organize itself.

The need for boundaries does not imply the need for management. It is a common misconception that a system without governance has no boundaries. There are always boundaries. I should know. I’m sitting here, trying to write a book within the boundaries imposed on me by my publisher, my employer, my spouse, my intellect, and (worst of all) my computer. And yet, as a freelance writer, I have no manager.

The universe itself is a boundary. Our planet forms a boundary. Natural resources form boundaries. And cultural constraints in a group of people also form a boundary. What we can learn from this is that there’s always plenty of opportunity for self-organization to take place, and quite often at least something will emerge from that. But now that you’re a manager, having defined the system in the first place, and governing the system to protect it, you might just as well take the opportunity to make sure that what emerges has value to you and the environment.

The message of complexity science is not simply to stand back and wait for the right solutions to emerge. Too little control is just as misguided a business strategy as too much. Some structure is necessary. The degree and nature of control that CEOs establish in their companies strongly influences what emerges, in terms of culture, creativity, and adaptability. [R. Lewin & B. Regine, 2001]

As a manager it is your job to manage boundaries and constraints, so that the right solutions can emerge. You don’t manage the people. You manage the system.

The good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system. They hired self-disciplined people who didn’t need to be managed, and then managed the system, not the people. [J. Collins, 2001]

In biology this is called directed evolution. Biotech companies exploit the power of evolution to design drugs. They take charge of selective pressure and then allow nature to self-organize and do the rest. Directing evolution is a matter of changing boundaries so that nature produces molecules that are valuable. Directed self-organization in organizations is a matter of manipulating the constraints so that a group of people produces results that are valuable to the manager.

So yes, it’s true. Managers are manipulators. But they must be manipulators of the system, not the people.

(image by Jenny Downing)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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