Are managers spending their time wisely ?

What are managers focusing on ?

One of my biggest pet peeves over the years has been that managers in most organizations do not spend their time on the right things. Managers swing between  micro-management and too little engagement. This is true for most mid-level managers in companies but is especially true for project managers.

This happens because the role of the manager is not as well-defined as it should be. When someone is made a manager, they are just told that they now have additional responsibilities. Sometimes this additional responsibility comes with additional authority, but it almost never comes with a “playbook”. Even in organizations where there is a playbook for each role, most management work is part of the “company culture” and most managers play it by the ear.

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Top-heavy organizations lead to more discontent

I was stating on my twitter handle today that the biggest problem with the Indian governments over the years has been that they have been too top-heavy. Bottom-line: too many decisions are made by the top leadership and the middle to low-level managers are left with the cleaning up acts.

Specific to the current Congress-lead government, decision-making authority has been divorced from any accountability. Which is why we have a 40-year old “youth leader” (a.k.a “the Prince”) running around making irresponsible and nonsensical statements. However, this is not a political blog.

The reason why the governments have been top-heavy (and this has been true for non-Congress governments also) is that very few of the political parties have any meaningful form of internal democracy. Most of the top party leadership positions are shared by kith and kin of people who are already at the top — again, true for most parties and not just the Congress.

A closer look reveals that Indian society is itself top-heavy…Indian families are top-heavy. So, it is more or less a cultural thing. I do not have a solution written down for this, yet.

What happens in top-heavy organizations is that there are two groups of people — those with authority who sit at the top and direct and those who form the “worker-ants”. Further, the two groups are not formed based on merit, rather on who you happen to know or who gave birth to you. True, there are exceptions to this rule, but great organizations cannot be built on exceptions. This eventually leads to frustration among those in the second group…especially when those in the second group are more capable than those in the first. When you are a smart person with great ideas but are repeatedly being shot down by a boss who is not as smart and there is no way for you to work around that boss, you will get frustrated.

Indian organizations – families, societies, communities, governments, political parties — all of them, need to get out of this mode. Top heavy doesn’t work. It tends to concentrate power and authority in a small group and that is what is called “lack of empowerment”.

If the person on the street feels “lack of empowerment” at every step, democracy has failed.

For companies, the lesson from this is that if you do not make each of your employees feel empowered, you will not see great ideas and initiatives come through. No matter how smart your CEO is, he/she is not going to come up with all the brilliant ideas on their own.



What is wrong with large organizations ?

Scott Berkun has a new book out (The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work) in which he talks about his experiments working for

One of the ideas he explores in the book is how small, smart, focused organizations are changing the way work is done in the “new world”. He describes the cynicism of “experts” who are quick to point out that while such-and-such is a great idea, it would hardly be scalable. Somehow that is supposed to mean that the idea is not practical.

Scott asks :

What good is something that scales well if it sucks? Why is size the ultimate goal or even a goal at all ?

As an employee at a large company, when you propose an idea, the first question that is asked is: can this work at the organization level ? Sure, this is a great idea for this specific group, but will it work across all departments ?

Now, most ideas do not work everywhere. Not all departments are the same, not all groups have the same problems/goals. Ideas come with context to the specific problem/goal that the specific group is trying to address. So, why are new ideas passed through this lens when they are proposed ? Why are ideas expected to work on a large scale as well as a small scale ?

I believe that this is where large organizations (and that includes most governments) fail to innovate. Large companies that do innovate are mostly those that work on small scales. ..those that have hundreds of small, focused groups instead of being one huge monolith.

Software development, especially is meant to work on micro scales. You build small programs that address specific problems and then try to integrate the smaller pieces into one big piece. Object oriented programming took us in that direction decades ago. That is how organizations should work as well. They should be made up of small groups (of 5-10 people) that address specific problems and do that well. It is, then, the task of the senior leadership to integrate these small groups.

We are quickly moving into an age when organizations need to build themselves around small groups (or even around individuals). There was a time when individuals molded themselves (and their style of working) around the organizations that they belonged to. That time is long gone.