Management from Underneath | | DJS

Management from Underneath

Management from Underneath is a long-running working title for a long string of moans about management and what you can do about it. Here I (hope to) record content abstracted from many emails to see if there is (or will be) enough content to turn this into published web pages. I've used the abbreviation MfU widely in notes to myself and the very few with whom I have communicated on the topic. I'll let you apportion other meanings to MfU, but expect you to match those found in fubar and snafu.

Many of my examples come from the field of education, but that does not in any way mean that the suggestions herein apply only to teaching.  In many ways, teachers act much as independent contractors, as the sole teachers of a class, or the sole teacher of a specialist subject, and teachers will have many lessons completely uninterrupted (an interruption would be adults coming into the room during a lesson). But in other aspects teachers are members of a team such as a department and a team such as applies to those teaching a year-group – and as such are simultaneously members of several teams; subject, year, tutors, house affiliation, attachment to activities such as sports, clubs, societies. In these ways teaching is quite wide in its reach and teachers are often required to wear many hats across even a single day, let alone any larger unit of time.

Blue indicates recognised need for action  Brown is a quote, or possibly a paraphrasing. There should be a visible  link to the origin.

This page is a starting point for chapter headings. Each heading will hopefully become a separate webpage and, as that occurs, so the content of this page shrinks into little more than general pointers and leftovers.

This is not going to be a large work. It is likely to complete as one of those small works you can finish in a fairly short time but puts ideas into your head so that you can turn them into practice, as you find what works for you. One might hope that the result is life-changing, but if you're reading this, you're already open to the idea that maybe there are better ways of working, which is more than half of the travel required. Any change of attitude is down to you, but we might hope that we point to the tools you already have and others you might develop, such that you can cause change to occur around you.

Chapter: what is management?

Chapter: Your own space      √

Chapter: Measures of success   √

Many businesses find a need for metrics. They form the basis of incentive schemes, they measure productivity, time spent on task, etc etc. 

Chapter: Measures worth doing  

leading to discussion of data, unconscious bias, diversity issues. Could be broken into more chapters.

Chapter: At some level, decisions become political.

But political decisions are, very often, made for the benefit of the decision-maker. 

It may be that 'who benefits?' is a question we should apply to every decision. It seems to me that it would be a good thing if, in business, a decision could be shown to be for the benefit of the business (and not, directly, for those people 'in charge' of the business). There is reasonable argument for minuting decisions that are seen as significant, showing the expectations of gain from decisions, how the decision relates to the core business or the future of the company, who within and outwith the business should find benefit. I am not at all saying these things should be published—that's a transparency issue—but it might help to be able to review the thinking honestly recorded when the unexpected consequence occurs. Also, I think that it would be useful to be able to revisit the thinking behind a decision so as to determine the extent to which the thinking proved correct; in this way perhaps future decisdions could be improved.

Within a school environment, the classic case is a conflict between what is good for the student and what is good for the teacher (or department, or school). For example, when it is in the interests of the school for a candidate to be not entered for an exam, where the anticipated poor result will bring down the result metric.

In a larger sense, this refers to any decision that rejects the core business, education say, in favour of a perception of protecting that business, the integrity of the school. I say this is political. I question the integrity of such actions.

There is an argument I have had put to me that failure is to be avoided. My observation is that people learn from mistakes and that therefore non-damaging mistakes are a fast route to learning. Where people are refusing to learn, there need to be bigger downsides. Thus a student with a low grade has more to gain—in the end, with some grade rather than none—than the student who is persuaded to drop the course (or is forced from the course). I have known students who are so demotivated that being dropped from a course is 'success', because they are in effect rejecting education as worthwhile and they have what they want right now, to be left alone. One consequent observation is that a common response to criticism is withdrawal, which could include non-participation.

In an office it is surely easy to find examples where a decision benefits one person at the disbenefit of others, protecting the system but not advancing the core business. Examples needed. One example of this is the collection of data for a metric; the oly person to whom the data is useful is the person demanding that the data be collected. This begs what I call 'gaming' to occur; if you knew what the metric was to be used for, particularly the likely decision to be made on the basis of this 'evidence' collected, it would be very tempting to give the 'boss' what it wants (or thinks that it wants). To have genuine data collected requires all involved to have a share in the result, and for the result to be unthreatening to the employment.

Chapter: Company Ethos (combine with the one above, about politics?)

A company has an ethos, even if undeclared. This is the set of beliefs that characterise and guide behaviour both internally and externally. Causing change to that from within the employment—and not at the top— is difficult. It is much easier to destroy than to create, but one of the purposes of this work is to show that such change can come from within, and that, quite often the impetus for change is stronger if this is the case, in comparison to imposition from on high.

Partygate.... if those who make the rules are happy to break them, what message does that send?

Is the ethos of the company consistent, or does its description very much depend who you ask and how senior they are? Can anyone show that the ethos affects any action or decision taken? If the ethos is well framed, should that not be self-evident?

Example at school: is this action for the benefit of the student, of the student's learning, the students' learning, the direct benefit of the teacher or department? Are any of these states in conflict and, when they are, does the ethos help describe the chosen action? If it doesn't, is that going to change?

What are the objectives of a business? Making money? Survival? Sustainability? Meeting a need?

I doubt that such questions are asked repeatedly in most businesses. For the long-established, the answers to such questions are largely 'not put', being somehow embodied in the ethos of the company. Businesses with diversity, by which I mean a breadth of products, have a situation where they are in a particular class of business, say the manufacture of plastics, recycling of general electrical goods, power generation, provision of business advice, or mortgage agency. Within their chosen field there are processes which they consider core, and unless those processes are threatened, there is a basic assumption that each such process will continue much as before. However, for each business there is an environment; of regulation, of tax regime, of limitations of funds for research and for training, of availability of resource (but perhaps most sensitive to suitable labour). And, in such environments there can be change. 

One example here is that of sustainability, where we are encouraged to view the whole cycle of a product and its constituent parts, not merely the part that we play in the cycle for any indicated product. The long-term objective is to leave no damage or, better still, to be seen to have improved the environment, which itself is a carefully general term. We do not discuss direct benefits of such activity, but we tell ourselves, or are told, that these actions and this change in perception is necessary for us all, so as to still have a planet on which to live. Quite how each tiny action has an effect of the whole is not discussed, just that if we all do our bit, things must get better.

This has close parallels with a situation we saw written large and small during the covid pandemic, from 2019-2022 and beyond. Each individual person was at risk (of catching the virus and the consequences of that) and this risk could be reduced by reducing or removing contact with others from 'normal' behaviour. That idea was repeated at the level of household, workplace, local community, nation and region. So we have several issues to deal with, protecting self and its consequential chain of family, locality, workplace, etc) and protecting others (all of the same chain, moved to the right). For many, this was soon seen as a conflict between economy and health; those with unreliable income rapidly found that their choice was as direct as between the immediate need of food and the intangible risk of contracting the disease. So at some point, for many people, there was a conscious or unconscious decision to act one way or another in line with or against the national level advice (precautions, regulations, law). 

This is, largely, a problem of relative risk. But perception of risk is something we are provably bad at, just as we are bad at balancing relative risks. This is not at all helped by the media, who generally have the same problem, exacerbated by the mantra that bad news sells. So we soon reach a position where herd behaviour occurs. "We don't actually know what is going on, but this seems to be what everyone else is doing, so I'll do the same" sort of thinking; this is not uniform and there are echo-chamber effects, because your perception of 'what is going on' is strongly coloured by your neighbours (in the most general sense, those with whom you come into contact, media twitter included). Suddenly there is no loo-roll on the supermarket shelves. Baa.

insert paragraph(s) about pluralistic ignorance, where one assumes that one's opinion is minority one, when it is not. This produces a trend towards the status quo ante, this fighting any course/cause for change.

Link to my pages on relative risk, on covid related matters, on decision making and, through those to all the linked sites therein.

Chapter: changing employee and employer

Are new employees more 'people like us', from the perspective of those choosing the employee? Is that conscious? Is it at all good? Are there occasions when this is a valid inclusion?

Do you really want to work for these people?

How desperate are you? 

Chapter: Honesty

Especially self-honesty, internal honesty

Chapter: How to and how not to  √

Chapter: the Learning Business      

Marginal thinking . source.

Marginal costs are what you pay to make one more widget. Full costs account for everything.  So when an idea occurs that would make something a little better or a little differently, the big company, which looks at marginal costs, is slower to adapt than the newcomer. In a sense, the watcher of marginal costs is (always) looking short term. In the end, change must occur or the product (and supplier) will die away. So we do the same in life and we can call this marginal thinking

A few examples: texting while driving because you are late to a commitment, fudging your receipts to hide an accounting error, prioritising work over family to secure that promotion, or taking a PED (performance enhancing drug) to be able to work-out even though you haven’t fully recovered. 

Marginal thinking has a few typical qualities: decisions are 1) made in the present moment, 2) done to avoid or reduce negative effects, 3) heavily influenced by our environment, and 4) they are small. In fact they feel trivial, at least relative to the problems they help us avoid. 

The first step down that path is taken with a small decision. You justify all the small decisions that lead up to the big one and then you get to the big one and it doesn’t seem so enormous anymore. You don’t realise the road you are on until you look up and see you’ve arrived at a destination you would have once considered unthinkable.  source

 There is a sense in which MfU is looking to the larger picture but at the same time trying to nudge the higher-ups with small changes so that they arrive at the big change—a positive one, not the negative ones described above—as something of a surprise.

An issue I identify is the personnel department, these days called HR, Human Resources. Too often, this has become a sort of bully boy for management who pass off the nasty consequences of their decisions to the HR department to act upon. In turn, the HR department is left being one of several 'faces' of management. Not only is this department entirely admin-centred and therefore in several sense parasitic upon the core workers, it is put in a position where often the only counter to the imposed actions is through a union representative. That makes the workforce in general some sort of disputed zone, very much an Us-and-Them thing, and this runs counter to many of the ideas for collective thinking, improved ethos and so on.  Us, the union; Them, HR.

It might be better if HR was in some sense independent of management, more genuinely a service department. A test here would be to ask if HR could be out-sourced or if a union could or should have a high membership within that function. It would be good if there were positive actions from HR, such as perhaps chasing up spend on CPD —making it happen, making recomendations, showing support for the line workers. 

One of the nicest suggestions from a boss is that it is time for you to move on; it is understood that this for your own benefit.  I could, on behalf of an employer, argue that you move on before I make you unhappy by not giving you more money for much the same work, or that you are clearly ready for more responsibility but I don't have it available to be given. I wonder whether it occurs that sometimes the employee would be very happy to take the kudos and stick with the work they have, in return for littel more than an acceptance  or recognition of competence in post. We do not necessarily live only for work.

Covid            Email:      © David Scoins 2021