I’ve an academic interest on a topic of big company management. An armchair variety of an academic interest, to be precise.
What they teach in management schools? That question has intrigued me for a long time. Either they teach wrong things or getting thousands of employees to stay motivated and work efficiently is a really tough if not an unsolvable problem.
Today I accidentally encountered a succinct description of management that resonated with me. Ben Horowitz, a VC and an ex-serial entrepreneur, describes management in an answer to a question in Quora:
If you think of management as a systems problem where your task is to design and maintain a system where it’s 1) easy to get meaningful work done and 2) is fun to work in and 3) you will be recognized for your good work, then the relevant experiences for management are to a) work in a company and find out why it’s hard to get things done or b) run a company and carefully observe how you are screwing it up.
I’ve worked in two big companies, Nokia and Google, and in various smaller entities.
Nokia, at that time, was dysfunctional. Working there felt like driving several months with a gas pedal fully pressed down, but a gear stucked on 2. You could smell the smoke. Capable people worked a lot, but a little useful came out. And then there was an equal amount of less capable people. I don’t know if they worked a lot or not, but it probably didn’t matter.
Although there was several problems, I put the main blame on a deeply hierarchical organization that Nokia had at that time. I had three levels of management sitting next to me and I never talked with anybody from the high management. Neither did my team mates, thus the lack of communication was not just a sampling issue. How could the high management ever understand problems that us in the execution level had, if they only heard them from company-wide intranet surveys and from the middle management 10-steps-deep. In my opinion, all the other problems followed from that.
Google is a poster-child for a company with a great work culture. During my short 1-year-stint there, I had an interesting 20 minute discussion with Larry and bumped into Eric in a party despite the fact that I was mainly located in London instead of Mountain View. And of course they had a TGIF events on every Friday, with high management talking to employees and taking questions. Thus they definitely didn’t have a problem that Nokia had.
I sometimes felt that a some kind of reality distortion field of “this amazing work place with free gourmet food” was the main motivator for many.
Google has been very innovative in how to be a company with 3000 employees, but I felt that they had deliberately decided that they are not going to innovate how to be a company with 20000 employees. It’s risky after all and they are already taking risks in their innovative products.
Though, I honestly think that Google might have the best possibility to innovate in big company management, if they choose to try out radical new approaches.
When it comes to Ben’s description of management, I think I’ve personally done enough of the a) and I’m now having a start on the b). Maybe someday I know what they should teach in management schools.