Creative work cannot be managed

Traditional management strategies are useless for problems that require creative thinking.

Traditional management strategies are useless for problems that require creative thinking. And almost every job that has meaning for the future of humanity requires creative thinking.

Whatever opinion you may have about managers and their techniques, the actual history of the profession is likely far worse. For instance, this article covers research done at Harvard Business School about The Messy Link Between Slave Owners and Modern Management. A small excerpt:

Slave owners were able to collect data on their workforce in ways that other business owners couldn’t because they had complete control over their workers. They didn’t have to worry about turnover or recruiting new workers, and they could experiment with different tactics—moving workers around and demanding higher levels of output, even monitoring what they ate and how long new mothers breastfed their babies. And the slaves had no recourse.

“If you tried to do this with a northern laborer,” Rosenthal says, “they’d just quit.”

And then there’s this history of scientific management from the New Yorker. Speaking about Frederick Winslow Taylor, the “Father of Scientific Management”, the article says:

Whether he was also a shameless fraud is a matter of some debate, but not, it must be said, much: it’s difficult to stage a debate when the preponderance of evidence falls to one side. In “The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong”, Matthew Stewart points out what Taylor’s enemies and even some of his colleagues pointed out, nearly a century ago: Taylor fudged his data, lied to his clients, and inflated the record of his success. As it happens, Stewart did the same things during his seven years as a management consultant; fudging, lying, and inflating, he says, are the profession’s stock-in-trade.

The problem goes even deeper. Dan Pink’s popular TED talk goes over research that shows increasing financial rewards for better performance actually produces worse results for creative tasks.

What’s the solution? Enable people to meaningfully engage with their own work. As Dan Pink summarizes it, people doing creative work want and need three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I’ve been on several software projects where progress had stalled and frustrations began to rise. The response? More meetings, more top-down control over low-level decisions, more aggressive scheduling of milestones. The result each time was the same: the project failed anyway.

As Alan Cooper tweeted, “Management is about choosing the proven alternative over the risky new one. Creativity is about taking risks to find new alternatives.”

In order to produce meaningful new things, we must move beyond industrial-era strategies and embrace collaboration and creativity among the people actually engaged in the work.

Alongside the ideas of autonomy, mastery, purpose, creativity, and collaboration, another idea deserves consideration: empathy. It’s a mistake to think of empathy as a soft concept that must be kept separate from rational decision making. Empathy for the people we work with and the people we are creating products and services for will result in far better results than hard-headed calculation alone.

There are hopeful signs that these ideas are making their way to the people who found and run companies.