2019-10-14 management

Managers solve the problem of coordination failure

I’ve always been a little bit suspicious of “managers.” Even the word itself comes off as pretentious, top-down and disconnected. It seems to relish hierarchy and flout collaboration.

The manager doesn’t do, he manages.

This is also, conveniently, exactly the type of accusation you’d expect from a “doer.” The doer glorifies doing because, after all, without doing, nothing gets done!

There’s something undeniably empowering about being able to do everything yourself. To not rely on others, to be independent. If the ship sinks, the doer at least has learned to swim.

So what if the world was only made up of doers?

Well, there would be absolute chaos. Things would get done, of course. Small, little things. The whims of individuals, the narrow ambitions of the particularly persistent. But the big things, they would not get done.

Big things are, by their very nature, bigger than any one person. They require an intricate patchwork of knowledge and experience that only a diverse group of individuals could ever produce.

At a more basic level, big things simply require raw time, attention and effort beyond the capacity of any single individual. Projects at scale require people at scale.

Unlike working alone, however, people at scale introduces a very specific problem: that of coordination failure.

A coordination failure occurs when a group of people fail to achieve a better outcome had they coordinated more effectively. If two people stand behind a car and coordinate to push it forward, they’ll be more effective than the pair who haphazardly stood on opposite ends.

If we want to get things done at scale, we need to solve the problem of coordination failure.

We might fail to coordinate because we fail to plan effectively. Large-scale projects are complex, and there’s often a very specific order in which things have to occur. Certain tasks may depend on other ones, and if those aren’t completed first, they can bottleneck the entire project. Worse, they can kill it. Someone needs to map out these dependencies, anticipate the potential roadblocks, and resolve them before they occur.

We might fail to coordinate because we fail to communicate effectively. If your task depends on my task, but I forget to notify you that my work is complete, then you’ll sit idle waiting to hear from me. Someone needs to ensure that people notify others upon finishing their work, and that other people actually receive those notifications.

We might fail to coordinate because we fail to reach agreement. If people don’t see eye-to-eye on things, then the project won’t earn the engagement of all its contributors. Someone needs to elicit opinions from all the stakeholders, negotiate with them, secure buy-in, and finally share the agreed-upon course of action with everyone involved.

Finally, we may fail to coordinate because we fail to stay motivated. I know it’s tempting to think of people as “human resources,” who will mechanically work if there is work to be done, but obviously this isn’t realistic.

People are people, and their engagement with their work ebbs and flows. Nothing kills a project faster than having people who are demotivated, contributing nothing and sometimes even detracting from overall progress. Someone needs to listen to these contributors, understand their frustrations or concerns, and figure out how to keep the motivated.

In each case, I mention that “someone needs to” do something about the coordination failure. That someone is, of course, the manager.

A manager’s job is to solve the coordination failures which inevitably arise when multiple people work together toward a common goal.

If people are constantly sitting around doing nothing because they’re depend on someone else to do their work first, that reflects a manager’s failure to plan effectively.

If people are constantly unsure of what to work on, what to prioritize or what the overall objectives are, that reflects a manager’s failure to communicate effectively.

If people are constantly disagreeing with another, preferring to stew in silence than to come to the table and discuss, that reflects a manager’s failure to reach agreement effectively.

And if people are constantly offering hollow excuses for why things can’t get done, it’s probably demoralization, not incompetence, and further reflects a manager’s failure to motivate effectively.

Good managers, then, tend to excel in a few areas in particular:

Clearly, not every team needs a manager. If you agree on everything, communicate well, reliably plan ahead and motivate one another, there isn’t much need for a manager.

But if you slip on even one of these, the threat of coordination failure slowly encroaches. People grow frustrated with the lack of communication, the lack of direction, and the lack of feeling understood.

If you’re used to being an individual contributor, this might all sound like “overhead” – things which are orthogonal to getting the job done.

But it’s precisely this “overhead” that good managers are forced to deal with so that individuals contributors don’t have to. Like the body’s nervous system, managers facilitate coordination within a system, removing frictions as they arise.

Despite all this, I’m still not a fan of the term “manager.” It’s too burdened by the imagery and nuances of the industrial era: hierarchical, domineering, my-way-or-the-highway type behavior. It’s connotes the exact opposite of the type of leadership I think is most effective: servant leadership.

But changing language is hard, and any good manager would quickly realize it’s a politically futile effort. So for now, “manager” it is.