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Don’t Play the Game

Yesterday I listened to a podcast with famous ocean explorer Robert Ballard, the person who discovered the wreck of the Titanic as well as being responsible for many other amazing discoveries and exploration related to the ocean.

The interview was very interesting and he turned out to be a fascinating and impressive person, but there was one particular aspect of what he said which I thought was most relevant and worth commenting on here.

The thing he said which impressed me more than anything else was how he refused promotion beyond a certain point. He was a naval officer for 30 years and refused promotion past commander because he wanted to stay in touch with what the navy was really about – commanding a ship – instead of being stuck in an office back on land. And he refused promotion in his academic career to positions such as dean or chairman of a department because he wanted to stay in touch with real research. Basically, he just refused to play the game!

If only we had more people like this. I work in a university and I often see talented researchers and teachers who have been promoted to senior positions where all they do is perform trivial administrative tasks all day instead of doing something more worthy of their considerable talents.

The problem is that there is a fixed system of advancement built in to most large institutions and that system is generally not a productive way to use the skills the members of that organisation have. While management is seen as the most senior (and most well paid) role in an institution there will be a continual trend for people who are very good at their original role being moved into management instead.

But if the really good people don’t move to management doesn’t that mean only untalented, mediocre people will end up there instead? Well that already happens quite often but there are two alternatives.

First, we could only accept professional managers into management positions and have an advancement system where good people can keep doing what they are good at (for example research in a university) while still increasing their seniority and pay. The problem with that, of course, is that professional managers are generally idiots. What sort of person would actually want to be a manager? Someone who can’t get a real job maybe?

So the second scheme is to redefine what a manager is. Unfortunately there is a need for some sort of management in large organisations to handle running the systems which keep the organisation running: financial experts for example. But these people shouldn’t be at the top of the hierarchy, they should be more like assistants to the people who do the real work and get the core functions done.

Well known essayist John Ralston Saul has made similar comments regarding management and I think he has a very good point. Our current system is self-perpetuating and just encourages greater bureaucracy. The people who can make the decisions to create a better system of management are themselves managers and are already gaining the most benefit from the system as it is.

But its even worse than that, in fact, because many managers only task is interacting with other managers. This means their perceived level of importance is enhanced by creating a greater bureaucracy and a more complex hierarchy of control. The more layers between where the real work is done and the decision making level the less likely the decisions are to be relevant.

The gross incompetence in large organisations which has lead to the collapse of parts of the US and world business system clearly shows that current management systems don’t work. We do need a change but while the decision makers have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are I don’t think it will happen any time soon. Too many people do play the game and not enough have enough true integrity to refuse to play it.

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