AWS Cloud Enterprise Strategy Blog

The Management Trap: Time for a Rethink

To manage one must lead. To lead, one must understand the work that he and his people are responsible for.

—Edwards Deming


We have a problem. Proclamations about the cloud, agility, and digital transformation hide the growing gap between the speed of the outside world and the speed inside organisations. My colleague Gregor Hohpe calls this the value gap: the gap between an organisation’s technical progress and the actual value derived from that progress. Blame others if you must, whether upstart new companies, or global events. In many cases, though, the problem is internal organisational drag from expanding maintenance activities, bureaucracy, silos, and organisational complexity. In other words, organisations start to compete with themselves. Imagine what you could do if you could eke two additional hours out of each employee. Well, frankly, research suggests we’d likely set up more meetings!

This organisational bloat happens gradually over time. Managers get added one by one to address a particular complexity. What results is more complexity and more meetings, particularly in areas of business characterised by uncertainty and rapid external change. This perpetuates Conway’s law, leading to more technological complexity. Value is lost and employees become frustrated. In 2015, McDonald’s addressed this in part by simplifying the global organisational structure. This wasn’t code for cost reduction; rather, it was a plan to reduce decision-making time and fund the acceleration of key initiatives at scale. We reduced the “depth” of the organisation, including the multiple layers of managers managing managers.

My goal in this post is simply to provoke different ways of thinking by redefining the value of people whose potential is often wasted in traditional management roles. My perspective is informed by research and supported by experience.

Our challenges with management date back to the industrial revolution and Frederick Taylor, the father of scientific management. Taylor assumed that workers were inherently lazy and uneducated, mere cogs in a machine. He created a new “management class” who owned planning and improvements. This approach permeates knowledge-based organisations today. Work is divided across silos, individual performance goals set, decision makers and “doers” separated, and processes set up to control work and people.

In many enterprises, the ratio of “doers” to managerial resources is out of whack. In some Western countries, over 20% of the workforce is now considered to be in manager-type roles, a number accelerating faster than other employment types [1, 2]. I suspect this story is worse in the average IT department, given demand and extensive outsourcing. More managers-of-outsourcers, PMOs, demand planners, and “business relationship managers” are recruited, all internally focused. We compound this by presenting only one career path for the “doers”: management. Contributions and importance become measured in team size, span of control, and budget, none of which equate to value delivered. This isn’t pointing the finger. I’ve been guilty of this managerial sprawl too.

Managers can play a role in connecting strategy to execution, greasing the wheels of communication, and coaching teams. In many organisations though they dilute accountability and agility by being overly prescriptive and disempowering teams, and reinforcing existing silos. Let’s be clear, though: this is not an employee problem, it’s an organisation issue.

It’s time we addressed this more deliberately. Let’s set aside those areas of the business that benefit from efficiency and predictability and focus on those that need agility. Most technology teams need a higher proportion of engineers, motivated and recognised outside of a typical management track. So let’s agree the following:

  • We aim to hire the best talent we can who intrinsically want to do a good job.
  • We need to create the right conditions for these individuals to succeed.
  • We prosper by maximising the time and energy our talent spends on what Lean practitioners call gemba: the place where value is created.
  • For healthy organisational dynamics, we need more behavioural interventions and less management of the work itself.

How can good people be repositioned into critical, value-generating roles? Instead of sticking your high performers in typical management roles, consider the following alternatives:

Managers as Master Artisans

Female craftperson with protective equipment working with planks in workshopWe can squander talented resources through our traditional processes. “Sally, since you’re our best architect, we’re going to promote you to be a truck driver” would make no sense—but that’s often what it feels like to be promoted into management. For many, it’s a forced step to progress rather than a true natural step to harnessing their mastery and experience. Recent research indicates that in Western countries, only 9% of non-managers wanted this “promotion.” [3] I’ve worked with talented individuals who were very clear they had no desire to make this transition. Instead, they played a valuable dual role of coach-artisan. They were the best at their job and stayed engaged in real work, commanding the respect of those aspiring to master their own craft. They gave great advice on performance, development plans, and complex issues.

Managers as Owners

In a previous blog post, I shared my views on what being involved in everything but accountable for nothing does to motivation and productivity. In my post on potential ways of solving these issues, I covered the idea of a fast action team: a more transient agile team that had end-to-end accountability for a critical initiative. The individuals who lead these teams do just that: lead, not manage. In many organisations, the bulk of these roles will be product owners, or your cloud COE leader. They are motivated by driving value but also recognise when their role is no longer needed. This way, the organization doesn’t fall into the habit of building bottleneck-inducing empires.

Portrait of construction engineers working on building site togetherAn alternative role is that of a process owner. I had an aha moment last year with a retail customer. They were frustrated that multiple organisational silos were optimising their part of the supply chain process, but the overall efficiency wasn’t improving. I’ve seen the same before. Think about getting food at a drive-thru. If I could reduce the order-taking time in drive-thru for the average customer to one second, it wouldn’t matter if they remained stuck behind a car waiting for their order to be delivered for the same length of time as before the improvement was made: it’s a serial process. Appointing a process owner who looks across the supply chain or other business processes allows Lean techniques to be applied and bottlenecks eliminated, optimising the whole process.

Managers as Coaches

Female coach standing with basketball team on basketball courIn self-managing, outcome-driven teams, micromanagement is disempowering. Instead of micromanaging, coaches tap into their experience and continual learning to help teams develop and solve problems. They provide career guidance, feedback, and training. They focus on behavioural coaching more than task management, fostering an environment where everyone contributes and brings their full self to work. In some organisations, these individuals are chapter leads; in others, they can be the Scrum master, often able to coach and engage in the “real” work. A competent coach-leader’s span of control can considerably exceed the six to seven direct reports often expected of managers. This expanded span helps prevent a tendency to drift into command-and-control behaviours and provides the support teams need in stepping up to make decisions.

Managers as Change Vanguards

It’s easy to believe that long-tenured managers will be barriers. Yet they are often the doyens of a company’s culture and navigators of the informal organisation; they are seen by others as speakers of the truth. Given that digital transformations need leadership support, these individuals can be enlisted as part of the core change team. Change vanguards can be taught new techniques and help teach, legitimise, and integrate these new processes into organisations.

Few, if any, organisations will be either 100% agile or bureaucratic. Agile bureaucracies will also need individuals who can bridge between those who see predictability as the answer, and those who believe agility is. They can traverse different ways of working, creating collaboration and understanding, and serving as an organisational lubricant. Many of these folks exist today in your “informal” org chart. They are likely to see this role as a natural thing to do, an adjunct to their more formal role. They are often inadvertent system thinkers, understanding that organisations are complex adaptive systems through having held many roles over a long period of time. Through the relationships they have built and their past successes, they can influence beyond traditional boundaries.

Managers as Leaders

Businessman(s) follows a right of way arrow that reads "Vision"While managers are still needed, embracing agility requires a focus on practitioner-leaders. Leadership by definition is how an individual acts, rather than what their title is. The line between leadership and “workers” blurs over time, and so agile organisations are likely to have more leaders, not less. These leaders can nurture the creation of communities of practices owners or be the single-threaded leaders responsible for orchestrating outcome-based initiatives that span teams, replacing traditional PMOs. They inherit the attributes of the other manager roles I set out above, including setting a clear vision, keeping the focus on an outcome, and developing their people.

As a starting point, take a hard look at your job descriptions. Can you create a technical track for individuals that are equivalent status-wise to the management band, but which harnesses artisans’ expertise? Can you empower these individuals by pushing decisions further down into the organisation? Critically appraise any instinct to hire new managers. If suppliers are performing poorly, look at the root cause rather than immediately hiring another sourcing manager. If projects are consistently off-track, try supporting agile delivery methods, a single-threaded leader, or similar rather than growing the PMO.

These changes require guts as they upset the old world order, but that’s what leaders get paid for. In return, leaders will be developed much earlier in your organisation and not subjected to arbitrary once-a-year myopic talent reviews often based on a single person’s view. Bring your people into the inner circle on these conversations. Job titles and expectations are rightly sensitive topics. These recommendations do not demean managers; rather, they should help unleash their true potential as leaders and problem solvers, and, in Gregor’s words, help close the value gap.

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More on this topic

McDonald’s: Executing the Turnaround Plan, McDonald’s Corporation

Time, Talent, Energy, Mankins & Garton

The Frozen Middle – Part Two: Thawing, Mark Schwartz

What Makes Good Leaders Great? Stephen Orban

AWS Executive Insights



[1] OECD data, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

[2] Management Occupations, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[3] The End of Management as We Know It, BCG.


Phil Le-Brun

Phil Le-Brun

Phil Le-Brun is an Enterprise Strategist and Evangelist at Amazon Web Services (AWS). In this role, Phil works with enterprise executives to share experiences and strategies for how the cloud can help them increase speed and agility while devoting more of their resources to their customers. Prior to joining AWS, Phil held multiple senior technology leadership roles at McDonald’s Corporation. Phil has a BEng in Electronic and Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Business Administration, and an MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice.