Managing Machines?

by / Monday, 29 February 2016 / Published in Insights, Latest posts

Author: James Middleton

I’m quite aware that the posts I write are not shattering the long established pillars of management theory with radical new insights and theories. However, I do believe that there is some value in reading about other people’s experiences and getting a taste of what potentially lies ahead.

This post revolves around a lesson that I think I am still in the process of learning. It will hopefully bring the two worlds of cost accounting and psychology head-to-head in a full force, brutal collision. It’s all about how businesses tend to understand people as machines.

The (very simple) theory

I am responsible for a really good team. Education writers, learning designers, graphic designers, animators, developers and videographers. Every single hour that they are working costs the company money.  This means that the ideal situation is to have every single able bodied person working on something all the time so that there is no waste.  There are few things that an accountant hates more than seeing money wasted (i.e. having a creative sitting around with no project to work on).

The effect

While it makes perfect sense to have every single person working on something that will cover their own cost to the company and bring in profit, anyone that has ever managed a team knows how difficult it is to arrive at that situation. Future work doesn’t always arrive, some projects go over budget and the scope of other projects shift like the tides of the ocean.

The effect of striving to get full productivity out of our teams is that we (myself included) treat people like machines. We see them as completely predictable and consistent (e.g. she can write 100 words a minute). We measure them like we measure machines and we manage them like we manage machines… usually with big spreadsheets that extrapolate how things will pan out.

Machines are predictable and consistent. We know they break down every 3 years, that they need maintenance every 6 months, that they can produce 50 toothpaste lids a minute. However, people are not like this… not at all! People have good days and bad days. People have lives outside of work that affect how they are. People get sick unexpectedly or never get sick at all! People are good at some things and bad at others. I believe that understanding this is of ultimate value when managing a team.

The lesson (that is still being learnt)

So what does this mean if you’re leading a team? I believe it is of the utmost importance that every single person in your team is understood to be and treated as a human. Know that they are complex, often irrational and very unpredictable. Know that they are dealing with things that you’re unaware of and that they have thoughts and beliefs of their own. Ultimately, know that it’s okay for everybody to not be operating at 100% capacity all the time (is that even possible anyway?). If there’s no work for the moment, let them relax, let them do something they enjoy and let them recharge for the next burst (which is inevitably around the corner). Allowing them the space to be human will create the potential for them to grow into that space. Restricting them to the world of a machine will only serve to confine them to that world… ultimately wearing them down until they break.

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