Monday, February 8, 2010

Managing Management

My friend Tony Sirna sent me an email this morning, asking for my reflections on a blog he just posted on "How Do We Define Good Governance." After reading it just now, I realized my response would make a delightful subject for my blog (I reckon it's a milestone of some sort that, for the first time, I'm blogging about someone else's blog—I'm sure it's a slope of no small slipperiness, but hell, you take inspiration where you find it... )

Tony lives at Dancing Rabbit, a 12-year-old ecovillage located three miles from my home at Sandhill Farm. They have a population of about 50 right now, merrily on their way to manifesting their vision of being a village of 500+. Among other issues, such as roads and waste water management, increased size puts a strain on their governance system. Up until now, they've been using consensus, yet there are grumblings about the cumbersomeness of the process. Their annual retreat is coming up the next two weekends and one of the major topics they'll tackle is whether or not to overhaul their governance system. Quite reasonably, DR is not just looking for a band-aid solution; they're trying to look ahead and anticipate what kind of system will work well for the community when its population swells into the hundreds.

In Tony's blog, he identifies the demand for greater ease of delegation and more streamlined management as a key impetus for reviewing DR's decision-making process. Springboarding off this, he focuses on the question of what constitutes "good" management. In consensus, he postulates that managers are making good decisions when they are the same ones that would have resulted from the matter being carefully considered by the full group. He also has a thoughtful analysis of how effective managers must balance the impact of their decisions on the whole group, with the effect on the staff or team who work under their managership. (While you might wish that these two sets have the same interests, Tony properly points out that it ain't necessarily so).

Tony further explores the "inertia factor" which takes into account that it's too much trouble (in terms of both time and morale) to call attention to every decision a manger makes that seems somewhat "off." Thus, beyond the ideal decision (to the extent that's knowable), the group needs to wrestles with what's good enough.

So here are my reflections on good management:
1. For the most part, I don't think the answer here depends much on what form of of decision-making is used. That is, I'd define good (or effective) management pretty much the same way whether the group is using consensus, voting, ouija boards, or do-whatever-Ralph-says. While I understand that there are very different power gradients in different forms of decision-making, I've come to believe that the most effective management always attempts to balance the impact of actions on the whole system.

If you buy this, then it follows that the issue of good management is more or less independent of the decision-making process. So, my advice to Tony is that you can tackle the question of good management and delegation first, and then consider whether the answers you come up with best fit within a continuation of consensus or something else.

2. In addition to the factors that Tony enumerated, I want to add some more. [Although I will use the term "manager" below, my comments apply equally to individuals who are designated as managers, and to groups who are identified as teams or committees.]

o Good managers are accessible. This flower has a number of petals:
—Ease of getting information from them (this is both about gracefully and promptly answering questions—even the stupid ones—and the degree to which they offer a clear rationale for their actions).
—Ease of their receiving information and concerns about the issues touching their area of responsibility.
—Their relative openness to receiving critical feedback. (I'm not talking about their agreeing with the feedback; only their ability to demonstrate that they've heard it accurately and are thankful for having been told.)

o Effective delegation requires clear mandates. That is, managers need to know a number of things in order to do a bang up job, including:
—What is the manager expected to accomplish (and how will success to measured)?
—Are there deadlines for when things need to be done?
—What resources will be made available to accomplish the work (money, labor, and access to equipment and facilities)?
—What are the limits of their authority to act on behalf of the group? (Put another way, when can they do on their own and when do they need to consult?)
—What are the factors they are expected to weigh in making decisions? (The simple answer may be the group's explicit common values, but there are subtleties here about additional factors that may be peculiar to that managership.)
—What are the expectations, if any, around collaborating with other managers?
—What are the reporting standards?
—To what extent can the manager self-govern (conversely, to what extent is the manager expected to act in a way that is consistent with the culture and precedents of the whole group)?
—Are there limits on how the manager selects people to work in their area?

o Effective delegation goes hand in hand with effective evaluation. How will managers be reviewed, both in terms of how well they're fulfilling their mandate, and in terms how good the mandate is. It's rare in my experience to find a group that does this well. Think of it like getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist. If you skip that regular chore, there tends to be a build-up of plaque that can lead to serious consequences. If you don't periodically clear the air, it leads to pockets of unresolved grousing and undermined trust in the manager (as well as in the system that paced that person there). Yuck!

o Cooperative groups have trouble appreciating managers in proportion to criticizing them. Where successful managers in the capitalistic mainstream get rewarded with bonuses, new cars, and an office with a corner window, in cooperative groups managers typically are rewarded with little more than the opportunity to serve and an occasional attaboy. If DR wants to have enough good managers to cover their bases (and I'm sure they do), they'll be wise to develop a culture that regularly appreciates good managers. Hint: In an ecovillage bent on pioneering a model of sustainable culture, this may require some creative thinking about what coin appreciation can be paid in.

o Great managers see ahead of the curve. While you can be a good manager without this quality, great ones bring up important issues and focus resources on their consideration before an opportunity is lost (or before a crisis has arrived). They inspire the group (or at least their staff) to see a bigger picture and to dream beyond the current reality. One of the insidious aspects of consensus is its conservative nature, which tends to punish initiative more than reward it. That is, leaders will not tend to be criticized for work done diligently to improve the seaworthiness of the boat the group is in, but they can count on incoming arrows whenever they propose abandoning the current, familiar craft in exchange for a different vessel, the better to weather the seas ahead. And the further ahead the storm, the greater the resistance to changing ships.

For my money, this is perhaps the largest governance conundrum that DR faces. While it is still pioneering a new culture, it is no longer just attracting pioneers. Twelve years into the experiment, many of the folks coming these days are settlers, who are happy to live a life based on what is, rather than on what might yet be built. This will act as a brake on dynamic managers unless great care is taken to make clear how their dynamism serves the group—both now and in the future. Tony wrote about the need to give managers some latitude to do things their way as part of the equation in keeping everyone reasonably happy (that is, it will not work if the concept of Servant Leader gets translated into Manager Slave, where it is all responsibility and no room for individual expression—just have a seat here on this bench and keep pulling on that oar until you drop).

It's tremendously exciting to have this grand experiment in sustainable governance unfold just three miles down the road. I can't wait to see how it turns out.

1 comment:

Tony Skyhouse said...

Laird says:

“I’d define good (or effective) management pretty much the same way whether the group is using consensus, voting, ouija boards, or do-whatever-Ralph-says. ”

While I agree, I think the interesting question is in the edge effects. The middle management might be the same, but I think the relation of CEO to shareholder is very different from Executive Director to members which is different from that of president to voting public.

At DR I’m most curious about how to deal with that relationship – between top level managers and the group, or alternately how the group can function as a good manager.