Why work has become 90% bullshit, and how to fix it
Management Philosophy for the Age of Integration™
The average day of a middle manager in Corporate America:
- 8–9am — Write status update emails
- 9–10am — 1:1’s to provide status updates
- 10–10:30am —Fifteen person meeting to “find alignment”
- 10:30–11:30am — Answer unending list of demands from email & Slack
- 11:30 — noon — Try to track down the person who can approve the next step for major initiative
- Noon — 1pm — Beg overwhelmed operations department to support your initiative
- 1–1:30pm — Try to track down a file from a former employee / Lunch at desk
- 1:30–2pm — “Check in” with corporate counsel to assess status of legal review
- 2–2:30pm — Manage vendor procurement
- 2:30–3:30pm — Navigate burn-out of direct reports
- 3:30–4:30pm — Interview candidates to replace burned out former employees
- 4:30–4:45pm — Ping product manager for update on new product feature
- 4:45–5:15pm — Create expense report
- 5:15–8pm — Pick up children, eat dinner, do 15 push-ups, take a Xanax
- 8–9pm — Do actual productive activities
What’s wrong with this picture?
Never have we had more ways to communicate and yet more confusion.
Then we hire more people specifically to manage the flow of confusion (sometimes, without their knowing). And more one-on-ones to sift through the confusion.
Is it any wonder that despite businesses throwing money at a proliferating buffet of productivity tools, productivity at work has been stalling out for a decade? [U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021]
Don’t buy the latest productivity hack or enterprise communication tool. Whatever it is, put it down. Now.
No, Slack is not the future of work. It is a detriment to it.
Because now work is hiding in twenty different apps, of which only certain departments within departments have access to.
Because the unstructured flow of notes, docs, collaboration tools, and don’t even get me started on email and inter-office chat have meant that instead of focusing on one thing to get work done, our collective brains are scattered in sub-bullets, comment threads, and email requests that come at every hour.
Because even those productivity tools that seek to add everything and the kitchen sink to one screen have only managed to replicate a mess all in one place (looking at you Notion & ClickUp).
In our pursuit of digitizing work, we’ve lost the forest for the tiny pinecones: which is that work is done at the intersection between people.
That’s all that a company is: a collection of people in one boat, working towards the same goal, each with their own paddle trying to guide us in the same direction.
We’ve seemed to have forgotten this thanks to the prevailing notion in management philosophy that the worker of the future (read: today) is the autonomous “knowledge worker.” A legacy that continues to haunt us today.
The notion of a “knowledge worker” was first coined by management consultant Peter Drucker in 1959.
He wrote that a knowledge worker is someone who “instead of generating value through physical labor with their muscles, they instead do it with their minds.”
Indeed, we see this in many of the top in demand jobs of today from “artificial intelligence specialist” to “data scientist.” [Business Insider, 2022]
Drucker noted that knowledge workers would be the most important asset of the 21st invention… and that, crucially, they must “manage themselves,” autonomously.
The world looked very different in 1959. Yet his vision has set in motion a new management philosophy we’re still hurting from today. This is the hurt of sticking to the vision of a world decades old.
[The knowledge worker] demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.
[Management Challenges for the 21st Century, Peter Drucker]
Drucker was right about the value of knowledge work. If the modern corporation is a boat all trying to journey across an ocean to various landing points, then having those with unique insight on how to bend a broken boat, or to predict the path of the wind is indeed important.
But he was wrong about the autonomous part. What Drucker couldn’t see in 1959, and even in the early 2000’s as he wrote updates to this theory, is how the speed of information would increase the ability for each worker to execute quicker and quicker… and yet, autonomous, all on their own.
Can you imagine if every rower in a boat was told their final destination and that they then could, as autonomous individuals, choose whatever path, method, and stroke pacing they wanted to get there?
It would be a disaster.
And that’s what we’re seeing in the modern corporation. People spinning themselves in circles trying to figure out what everyone else is doing. The truth is probably buried in a comment thread somewhere.
So what’s needed to right the ships?
You’ll be glad to hear that this will naturally sort itself out. Our collective paradigms for approaching the world are shifting in a big way. It’s just hard to see when you’re in the middle of a bubbling revolution.
We’re moving to a new era: The Age of Integration
For the past three hundred or so years in Western democracies since the Enlightenment Age, we’ve tended to define value and therefore ourselves around the ideas of individualism, rationalism, and unhithered progress (read: growth and development).
Perhaps no quote more summarizes the ethos of the era than:
— Roman poet Horace, First Book of Letters (20 BC)
(Popularized by Immanuel Kant, 1784,“Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?”)
In English, “Dare to Know,” also translated roughly to “Have courage to use your own reason.”
In Europe, the push was away from blindly following authority, namely at that time the church but also over the rule of empires and monarchies, none of which involved the rule of people. An important, and powerful idea, even if it is to say nothing about the colonialism and racism it generated in tandem. These were ideas for a certain group of people — Kant himself was among those who formalized theories of racial hierarchy.
Still, this era produced many values seen as the bedrock of Western democracies, from the notion of human rights (if inequitably applied) to a wide acceptance of the scientific method (if blindly adopted).
But in hindsight we can see that any paradigm has its limits.
This one has locked much of society into linear thinking (rationalism), opposition to nature and our natural state (progress), and–most importantly here–a lack of understanding of the connection between things (individualism).
These values have a hard time grappling with a world under siege from climate change, or where a virus smaller than a white blood cell can domino global economies within weeks. A world where a contained war can vastly disrupt the international supply chain. And as the scientific revolution pointing to the Enlightenment Era championed Newtonianism, today those values had a hard time understanding a science of Quantum Mechanics where the future can affect the past, or particles across great distances seem to impact one another.
No area of life will be outside the scope of the rising Age of Integration and the truth of this era is going to hit management philosophy next.
Those companies that survive and thrive will be like integrated ecosystems.
This doesn’t mean a return to authoritarian rule. It’s about using our new technologies around knowledge transfer and remote engagement to support collective, decentralized authority and agreement among those who are interdependent.
Take a simple example: A new company initiative, its timeline and scope, requires asks on other individuals in the company, each with their own mini-bits of other projects. Suddenly employees are giving 50% of their effort to 175% of work capacity, instead of giving 100% to a full capacity. But this overcommitment and under deliverance, this lack of holistic planning, is hidden from view.
Not surprising, employee burnout is one of the first outcomes of this approach. And the top talent will not take it lying down. Company productivity begins to sputter from a lack of focus and general confusion on how to effectively spend resources.
This will naturally sort itself out.
Things are interconnected. These ideas will naturally proliferate back into what we do for most of our waking life. Companies (and the people that make up those companies) that start now, recognize and work with this, to create an Integrated Company, will be ahead — even if the myth of the autonomous knowledge worker is a causality.
So what does an Integrated Company of the future look like?
- Regenerative—Create resiliency and self-heal through monitoring and automation.
- External — Document everything to facilitating knowledge sharing.
- Systematic — Make decisions and build processes by accounting for its impact on the entire (eco)system.
- Efficient — Spend the least possible on inputs for the best output, through focus on the right tasks in the right order, with no confusion about priorities.
- Transparent—Provide visibility on data and who is assigned to do what, on what, when, within a singular platform.
It will be hard.
We tend to think in a linear way.
We tend to live in silos, drawing the smallest circles around that which defines us.
We tend to want to take our work into our little corner, execute, and win big for our ego.
But it’s not the way the world works today.
Each of these ideas could be an article, perhaps a book, all unto itself. We’ll get there. More to come.
This is just the beginning.