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Management Reinvented

Julian Birkinshaw's desire to reinvent management is to be applauded. His article, "Reinventing Management" in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of Ivey Business Journal Online is a welcome beginning, a useful start to a dialogue that urgently demands high profile attention.

Birkinshaw is right to question management's negative image. Leadership is a bloated mess for carrying too much organizational weight. Balance can only be restored by bringing management back from the dead.

Management Defined

Citing Wikipedia, Birkinshaw defines management as "the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives." This view, he notes, carries no implication of hierarchy or control. Still, there are problems with this definition.

  1. First, it excludes managing oneself, property, material and financial resources.
  2. Second, it focuses on input, thus begging the question: What does getting people together to accomplish goals actually accomplish?
  3. Third, there is no reference to organization. Achieving a goal by accident or in a totally chaotic, wasteful manner counts as achievement but surely not management.

A broader, output focused definition says that management gets things done in a manner that makes best use of all available resources. Management so defined is like investment. When you prioritize, you want to invest your time in a way that adds the most value or obtains the best return on your efforts. This applies to managing yourself or any other resource. Management is about doing things in an organized way.

Leadership versus Management

Birkinshaw realizes that we need to say something about the place of leadership if we are going to reinvent management, thus saying:

Here is my view on the management versus leadership debate. Leadership is a process of social influence: it is concerned with the traits, styles, and behaviors of individuals that cause others to follow them. Management is the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals.

This account of management at least indicates its purpose or function but we are no wiser about the purpose of leadership. Is acquiring followers an end in itself? Or does leadership focus on change? This is critically important because many see leadership as management on steroids. Both aim to get the most out of people only leadership does it better. If leadership is genuinely about performance then we are faced with the question of what is left for management to do.

Actually both statements are plagued by input connotations. If we say that leadership influences people to change direction we gain an output focus as well as a clear separation of purpose. To use the journey metaphor popular with Kouzes & Posner we can say that leaders sell the tickets for the journey while management drives the bus to the destination. However, this is a bit misleading as it suggests that managers are mere implementers. But if leadership relies on influence then only managers can make decisions. Thus managers can decide upon new directions as well as implement them.

To further clarify his stance, Birkinshaw says: "To make the distinction even starker, one might almost argue that leadership is what you say and how you say it, whereas management is what you do and how you do it."

It is quite common to portray leadership as a verbal communication process but this rules out leading by example where nothing whatsoever need be said. The old cliché "actions speak louder than words" testifies to the fact that we follow what people do more than what they say.

The emphasis on "how you say it" is also unfortunate. In organizations that value "evidence based" decision making, hard facts often count for more than how they are conveyed. In some contexts content really is king. So, there are situations where what you say is more important for leadership than how you say it.

The reference to "how you say it" also preserves the myth that leaders must be inspiring or transformational by definition. This rules out factual leadership in technical contexts where evidence is what matters.

In the statement quoted above, Birkinshaw tells us that management "is what you do and how you do it." But what about managers saying things and how they are said? Also, is management really a form of doing? Or, is it a facilitative process that gets things done through others?

Models of Management

Birkinshaw blames large, early industrial organizations for the portrayal of management as hierarchical, bureaucratic and controlling. But rather than arguing that management can be reinvented for such organizations, he says:

Such a narrow model of management gets us into trouble for a couple of reasons. First, it blinds us to the range of alternative Management Models that exist. Sports teams, social communities, aid organizations, even families, operate with very different principles than large industrial companies, and these alternative principles are potentially very useful today.

Talk of "alternative" management models is unfortunate because it gets in the way of a full scale reinvention of management, one that can be applied in all organizations and contexts.

He goes on to talk about various ways of making decisions, ranging from top down to "crowdsourcing," saying:

So it would be wrong to assume that all decisions made in the future will be made exclusively by those at the top of the hierarchy, and it would be equally wrong to assume that crowdsourcing will entirely replace traditional decision making structures.

By talking about models of management Birkinshaw creates the impression that management need not be reinvented for some contexts, that the top-down hierarchical and controlling style is simply a model that may well be appropriate in some organizations.

An alternative would be to say that there is really only one model of management but different ways of organizing. Decentralizing can be seen as a decision making style. It is not clear why Birkinshaw wants to see centralization versus decentralization as different models of management unless he sees management as a decision making activity. But this interpretation is not consistent with his definition of management as getting people together to achieve a goal which leaves open the issue of who decides.


Management can be conceptualized in one way for all contexts, including self-management, as simply achieving goals in an organized manner. When people are managed, the question arises of how to make best use of that resource. Certainly this depends on context.

But as the world increasingly shifts from physical to mental work, it is becoming clear that employees need to be involved in making decisions in order to feel motivated and engaged. Management properly reinvented can thus be applied in all organizations.

Suggesting that we should choose between competing models of management confuses the issue and clouds the management reinvention imperative. We need to choose between alternative strategies, ways of organizing and deciding, but the basic definition of management should be couched in terms that are universal.

See alsoTwenty First Century Management, Mintzberg on Management and Leadership and Management Reinvented.

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