Drucker, Agile and the Management Revolution

I took again Drucker’s The Effective Executive a few days back with the purpose of casually re-reading just a few pages, and this time I got hooked. I have been thinking a lot about what “management” means today in practical terms, in a business context influenced by Lean, Agile and many other paradigm change theories. The Drucker of the 1950’s had something to say about it.

In Chapter 3 What Can I Contribute? Drucker writes:

The man who focuses on efforts and who stresses his downward authority is a subordinate no matter how exalted his title and rank. But the man who focuses on contribution and who takes responsibility for the results, no matter how junior, is in the most literal sense of the phrase, “top management.” He holds himself accountable for the performance of the whole.

That simple phrase hit home. Drucker most likely never intended to define management with it, but just to express that the highest functions of management can happen at any level. Hierarchy cannot and does not dictate where top management happens.

The Agile Manifesto seems to go in this direction when articulates it’s focus on people and their interactions, building the projects around motivated individuals and using self-organization to make the best architectures and designs evolve. Of course the manifesto is focused on software development and not on general management, but there is in it, or at least in my reading of it, a similar sense of direction moving management down to each motivated individual.

The concept of “Respect for people (humanity)” is key in the Toyota Production System. That includes not only treating people well, but a deeper meaning of challenging people to perform at their best, think at their best and engage them in problem solving, teaching them to see the whole system, transforming by this act, any blue collar worker into a knowledge worker. That, according to Drucker, is top management assigned to each assembly line worker. Lean implementations in Western companies evolved from the TPS include practices to make each worker in a business process or value stream a participant in the governance and improvement of the said process. Holacracy does a similar thing with its governance circles.

There seems to be a tendency of pushing down “top management” as used by Drucker to the lowest level of the knowledge workers. Is there such a trend? If that is the case, what does this trend imply for management? There have been a few proposals to articulate answers to the question of what management means in the twenty-first century, with each putting emphasis on different aspects of it, like Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 and Steve Denning’s Radical Management. Denning went as far as describing a new management canon being created just now. The topic is far from exhausted and I feel it is extraordinarily important for all of us as to be a part of it as knowledge workers, that is, as explained above as management practitioners, or as Drucker wrote it as executives. It may well be a revolution of the largest magnitude, transitioning the way we organize ourselves in businesses, governments and associations from the industrial age into the information age, into the age of the creative economy.

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