Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Monday, July 22, 2013

Monday Management - Introducing Common Management Problems

Some years ago I began a series of blog posts on the theme common management problems – and what to do about them. The posts drew from my practical experience as a manager and a consultant. I wrote them because I had found that many people who had acquired some form of management role actually didn’t know what to do in a practical sense.

The problem is especially acute in professional services because so much of the work is individual: individual in the way work is structured, individual in relation to clients, individual in the way performance is measured. There is limited scope to learn how to manage by actually doing. Problems exist even in those areas of professional services where projects and project management are the norm.

Project management is not the same as management, although many project management techniques are also management techniques. A professional discipline in its own right, project management centres on individual projects. These may be simple or complex. They may involve a single person or a much larger team of full and part time people. However, they do not necessarily provide you with the skills required to manage a team with functional responsibilities involving multiple activities with varying time horizons, where the focus is on the achievement of broader results rather than individual project outcomes.

Lack of management skills and experience may be an especial problem in professional services, but it is not limited to that sector. Management is a craft, not a science. It has to be learned through practice. Across sectors, the thinning of management structures has reduced the opportunities for people to grow into management through progressive learning by doing. The problem is compounded by the growing role of specialists in senior management roles and by modern management command and control structures that have reduced the authority and scope of responsibility of individual managers.

Interestingly, the widespread adoption of project based approaches within organisations has further compounded the problem. This may sound counter-intuitive. Surely these approaches play an important role in improving organisational effectiveness? Well yes, but many areas that have moved to project based approaches end by displaying many of the cultural features to be found in professional services. There is the same emphasis on individual matters or assignments; performance assessment becomes narrower; it becomes more difficult to attract attention too, or resources for, issues that fall outside current assignments.

Staff have always complained about managers and management. However, the volume of complaints seems to have risen significantly over the last two decades. Importantly, managers themselves complain about the difficulties they experience in managing properly, in simply coping with the demands placed upon them. A surprising number of those in apparently managerial roles express actual dislike for the management process. Their focus is on their personal performance, on the things that they have to do themselves. The need to deal with people, to be responsible for others with varying needs and personalities, is seen as an impediment to their own performance.

If project management is not the same as management, nor is administration. All managerial roles involve a degree of administration, another thing that many professionals complain about, but that is only part of the manager’s role. Administration focuses on rules and systems, while management focuses on the organisation of resources and especially people to set and achieve objectives and to undertake specific activities.

Finally, management is not the same as leadership, although a measure of leadership is a necessary part of management. A leader may or may not be a manager. Indeed, many of those who see themselves as leaders are in fact extremely bad managers! There is a certain irony in the parallel rise in emphasis on leadership and governance at a time when management as such has been in decline. These trends are connected, for governance is a control on leadership that has become more important as management has declined.

Can management be learned? Yes. Like any other craft, management skills can be learned, although management abilities (the final capacity to do) will vary between people. The keys are knowledge and practice. For that reason, I am drawing together and updating my previous posts to provide practical guidance to all those who wish to improve their management skills.


I was asked about the current fad for activity based working and the associated idea of bossless teams. How do these fit with the type of argument I am mounting?

Later I will write something on both. However, for the present, activity based working is popular in certain larger professional services or certain financial firms where work is predominantly individual, or involves small variable teams. The term really relates to office design as much as it does to the organisation of work, although the first affects the second. It can be a productive approach.

Bossless teams rely on particular group dynamics and types of work and on the surrounding culture to be effective. I think that they actually first appeared in certain manufacturing activities, although I stand to be corrected there. Again they can work in particular circumstances, although in the end there is always a boss!

In terms of the fit with my argument, the best way of organising work will always depend on the type of work. I don't think that either detract from my focus on the importance of management.

I would be interested in reactions from readers in terms of their own experience with these different forms.  

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