Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tolstoy on Management

I'm still occasionally thinking about War and Peace. One of Tolstoy's favorite points in it was that kings, generals and other leaders of men typically only pretend to lead them and that the further one gets from doing real work, the less effect one invariably has on historical events. That's a whale of a generalization and on seeing it I first suspected authorial bias. Tolstoy understandably hated Napoleon, and Napoleon just happened to have been described as a genius by everyone who wrote about him except for Tolstoy. The count's attack on the general idea of managerial (but, conveniently, not artistic) genius can seem like a retaliatory swipe against a single man who, among other things, had invaded Tolstoy's motherland.

The only consideration that prevented me from dismissing Tolstoy's voluminous rants on this topic as mindless pettiness was that these rants agreed with all of my actual, personal observations of and experiences with management. Of course the level at which I made these observations is laughable compared to Tolstoy's. He personally knew and was related to almost everyone who ran one of the world's biggest empires. I spent the first few years of my working life filing paperwork and making copies. And yet improbably, most of the things that Tolstoy wrote about leadership have parallels with what I've seen.

The typical manager I've known not only didn't direct any work, he didn't even know what exactly most of the work consisted of. Often half of the orders given physically could not be followed. The easiest way to understand what physically can and cannot be done is, of course, to attempt to do it, and that disqualifies most managers. Half of the orders that can be followed aren't followed either - some because they're counterproductive, others through laziness. My 11 years in the workforce, 4 of them as a supervisor, have convinced me that the amount, nature and quality of the work that typically ends up being done almost exclusively depend on the nature of the workforce, especially on its work ethic. Every employee seems to have a rough, unspoken understanding of how much he is willing to work and care. There is pretty much nothing that a boss can do to change that understanding. The forces that appear to shape it most - ethnicity, age, personality - are well outside of the boss's control. The typical boss has long ago made peace with the fact that his orders aren't being followed. Those who are liable to be infuriated by this remove themselves from the system long before they can achieve positions of any prominence. In both government and large public companies employees are fired much more often because of personal conflicts arising from clashes of wills unrelated to any actual work than because of laziness or of any work-related mistakes. No one cares about work enough to want to fire anyone for not doing it or for doing it badly. And weirdly enough, there are usually some people about who are willing to work even if they know that they won't be fired for sitting on their asses all day. It is undoubtedly these people who keep civilization from collapsing.

If management doesn't direct any actual work, what does it do? It orders statistical reports about the work, conducts meetings and at the higher levels attends meaningless ceremonies. Having done about a million statistical reports I am quite sure that, at least at the places where I have worked so far, they are rarely read. Some of the data requested at meetings simply cannot be gathered. A lot of the data that can be gathered is obviously incorrect, yet this is rarely noticed.

I've been close to falling asleep at almost every managerial meeting I've attended. This is especially telling because I never fall asleep on the subway or in front of the TV and I had never, ever slept during classes at school. What can be more boring than a bunch of people talking about things they do not understand?

I'm guessing that private companies and the few public companies which, like Apple, are still run by their founders, are better at all of this than is the typical workplace. How much better though? The tsars certainly thought of themselves as rightful owners of their governments. Same with Napoleon. And yet Tolstoy was still able to write all of the stuff he'd written about the meaninglessness and futility of power everywhere he looked.

By the way, I'm not trying to denigrate most managers' worth as people here. Tragically, they tend to be smarter and more conscientious than the poor sods doing most of the actual work in this society. A more efficient system would work to redirect high quality people from management to productive activities. Same with hipsters, humanities professors, Wall Street rats and the rest of them. I realize that I'm starting to sound like Chairman Mao now, but yeah, perhaps some of his stuff made sense.

If I ran a large organization and was personally invested in its success, I would first get rid of 95% of its management. I would use the savings to attract a better class of actual workers by offering them higher salaries. This seems like a no-brainer.

When my boss told me years ago that I was going to supervise a couple of employees, I never thought of changing my attitude towards them. Occasionally I say things like "shouldn't we be doing X now?" and sometimes 10 or 20 minutes later my supposed subordinates actually get up and go join me in doing X. An outside observer might assume that at those moments I exercise my supervisory powers, but he would be wrong. Just as often one of my subordinates says to the other and to me "shouldn't we be doing Y now?" and guess what, in those cases I often eventually get up and go join him in doing Y. I never try to actually supervise not simply because it would be futile, but also to avoid looking ridiculous to myself and others.

1 comment:

  1. "Management," as a word, has been robbed of any communicative value (assuming it ever had any, which it perhaps did not, but I don't know the etymology). Basically, I think it's a debased synonym for "organization." A well-organized enterprise beats a poorly-organized enterprise -- organizing is therefore a useful activity, although calling this activity "management" and attaching a whole lot of additional baggage to it is foolhardy.

    As the military history of the world indicates, good organization matters -- organized armies beat unorganized armies, ceteris paribus. And not all people are capable of good organization, though they are capable of useful work if well organized -- hence we have an officer class and an enlisted class. It's been this way for a while.

    Management seems to be a new term for the officer class, but it's been robbed of a healthy degree of cynicism and pessimism. When it comes to organization, cynicism and pessimism are quite healthy. Cynical, pessimistic organization is better than delusional, optimistic management.

    If you take the function of management to be that of the officers -- organizing people and materials, planning, etc. -- it's not really a bad thing. But management has been sacralized in modern life, it's seen as a way to uplift the people. Well, the real word for that is education, and the capacity of education to uplift is genetically limited, which is why there isn't much useful innovation to be had here -- optimal education boils down to getting the amount and type of schooling to a person that is best suited to him. We don't even perform this simple function very well in modern mass education, appending it to management is a joke.

    Now, even stripped of the blubber, management as merely cynical, pessimistic organization is still fundamentally trying to solve a very hard problem. It's a "sucks least" sort of situation here.

    Apologies for the ramble, hope there was something of value in there.