Manage the System, Not the People

I first read about this concept of manage the system, not the people several years ago, when I stumbled upon Management 3.0, and have been inspired by it ever since.  As an advocate, teacher, and practitioner of Lean and Agile principles this concept really hit home with me.

So, what do I mean by managing the system?  In this context, the system is the organization itself.  Organizations are complex, adaptive systems made up of many interactive parts.  To help foster self-organization in a complex system, the system itself must be managed.  For example, establishing shared cultural values, removing unnecessary red-tape, and educating senior leadership on Lean and Agile principles are examples of managing the system.

At Beyond, we believe in hiring smart, motivated team members, providing a clear vision, identifying a clear set of boundaries, and then getting the heck out of their way so that they can self-organize.  As a manager, my role isn’t to tell my team members what to do and how to do it. Instead, my focus involves fostering a positive environment that maximizes employee engagement, accepts failures, and encourages passionate workers. Thus, I am helping to manage a team-oriented system in which members can be challenged to grow as one cohesive unit.

An analogy I often use when describing my management style is that of coloring in a coloring book. Pictures in a coloring book have boundaries. Likewise, my role as a manager is to make sure there is a shared understanding between myself and my team members about where the boundaries are and when it is appropriate to push the limits. Once this is understood, I can work to help manage the constraints when “coloring outside of the lines.”

I don’t really care what colors or techniques are used to color the picture, as long as team members stay within the lines. They are the ones closest to the work so I trust they will make the best decisions within their context. If a team member begins coloring outside the lines, it signifies that reflection and coaching is necessary to either bring them back inside their lines or consider the possibility of expanding their boundaries.

How do you know if you’re spending too much time managing your people, rather than the system? Ask yourself if any of the items below describe your management style:

  • You assign work to your team members
  • You tell your team members how to do their job
  • You decide who sits where
  • You spend more time creating red tape than removing red tape
  • You constantly review your team members work to make sure it meets your approval
  • You make all hiring decisions in a vacuum, without involving those that will be working with the new employee
  • You refer to your team members as “resources”

To summarize, hire passionate, motivated team members.  Define a clear goal for them and a clear set of boundaries.  Then, step aside, let them self-organize, and cheer them on.  But you might ask the following questions:

  • What if I don’t have passionate, motivated team members?
  • What if I don’t trust my team members to make decisions on their own?

If these questions resonate with you then take a hard look in the mirror and ask yourself what you can do to change that. Are you spending most of your time managing your people or helping to manage the system?

The Beyond Software Engineering department is committed to the highest levels of technological innovation. It all starts with the brilliant minds behind the scenes. That’s why we strive to achieve a positive work environment where our talented employees can reach their full potential.  

Share this post on social media

Stay in the Know

Get more content like this in your inbox.