Does Software Even Need Managers?

The Harvard Business Review put the cost of excess management at $3 capital-T-Trillion back in 2016, and it’s hard to imagine the numbers dropping in the interim. For everyone reaching for recent economic data, that’s nearly a fifth of the US economy preoccupied with pushing papers back and forth across a desk.

The good news, maybe, is that the movement to eliminate middle-management is on. X’s are out, Meta’s well on its way, and others have been following suit.

Can teams work without managers?

Paradoxically, the most effective development teams I’ve worked with don’t have managers. They’re self-organized and trust deeply in each other’s good intentions and expertise. Individual empowerment and a transparent working style obviate the organizational duties a manager might otherwise take on. Decisions are made transparently; outcomes are owned collectively; and accountability is inherent in the work.

When a team approaches its work with a common objective, with clear responsibilities and communication channels, management only adds overhead and indirection. There are a few caveats, though:

  1. The makeup of these teams usually (but not always) skews towards more experienced, independent team members, with less demand for feedback, coaching, and career support

  2. They also tend to turn up in smaller organizations, where stakeholders’ needs are self-evident and information beyond the team is easily discovered when needed

  3. Team autonomy is underwritten by trust from leadership–especially leaders of sister-teams and adjacent functions

Most teams don’t check the boxes. For those that don’t, having a team member dedicated to building alignment and resolving problems can help free the rest of the team to focus on their work.

The same goes for the teams-of-teams where middle managers lurk: focusing a team members on coordinating work across functions and customers means more time for line managers (or manager-less teams) to spend with their teams.

The manager’s changing role

Tech-industry managers play a significantly different role than even a few decades ago. Their first responsibility still lies with ensuring their teams’ objectives are delivered, but the means have shifted from task assignment to enablement. Managers provide a backstop for answering questions, resolving blockers, and maintaining accountability, but with the mechanics of project management largely shifted to the team (and encompassing agile methodologies) itself, their primary contributions lie elsewhere.

Google discovered this during their early dalliance (and subsequent rollback) of a flat organization, realizing:

…that managers contributed in many other, important ways—for instance, by communicating strategy, helping employees prioritize projects, facilitating collaboration, supporting career development, and ensuring that processes and systems aligned with company goals.

In other words, with teams empowered to deliver outcomes rather than simply completing tasks, managers’ time has shifted towards their second responsibility: growing their team’s capabilities. Building a culture where team members can thrive; training and coaching individual team members; building the team’s confidence and ambitions–activities that build leverage and keep employees engaged are challenging to measure but critical to maintaining competitiveness over time.

This responsibility is even more important in an economy organizing around data, automation, and AI: by combining their cross-functional perspective with general awareness of emerging technologies, middle-managers are ideally positioned to guide employees towards new opportunities that will benefit both the business and their individual growth.

Doing without managers

The risk of eliminating management (middle or otherwise) isn’t in the now: in-flight projects will go on, if only by inertia and cohesion that come with an established team. The real challenge comes over time, as team members face the dual realities of increased administrative duties and decreased investment in growth and development.

Do you still need management? Not in excess. And with autonomous functions in a supportive organization, you may be able to do without.

But not in absence, either. On the journey towards a “manager-light” organization–and for survival in the fiercely competitive landscape beyond–managers still have important parts to play.