Current changes in the workplace are creating innumerable challenges for management, and these challenges are poorly addressed by the command-and-control techniques of a previous generation. Today’s employees are increasingly knowledge workers, occupied in workgroups in which they are expected to have considerable autonomy. This is vital in the ability to respond to rapidly changing situations and to create innovations. The clearest indication of the new requirements is seen today in Agile software development, which has developed a body of practices to handle the requirements of constant change and reduced ability to predict final requirements. But all knowledge workers face similar issues, and these are exacerbated by increasing virtuality, weakening boundaries between personal and work lives, cross-functional teams, and multiple dotted-line management relationships.
Management needs to handle the emerging environment so that activities remain focused and in line with strategic objectives without destroying individual initiative, creative response, and the ability to respond to changes in an agile manner. This is a tall order, and its difficulty has been widely demonstrated in attempts to instill Agile practices in development as well as in general management. But team building and team management have been explored across a wide variety of conditions, and a pool of collective wisdom has emerged. Some comes from recent experience with agility, but there is a great deal more available from experience with managing creative personalities in fields such as advertising, and in managing heterogeneous and remotely located teams from outsourcing. All these experiences are becoming important in the current environment as we seek to foster agility, develop creativity, incorporate cross-functional teams, and manage remote workers.
The management of creative individuals has often been referred to as the “herding of cats.” Cats, as a rule, prefer to go in their own direction. That is the cardinal issue of the new work environment. Cats may be difficult to manage, but just try to get the sheep to walk across the rooftops!
Agility has provided a model of self-organization, local empowerment, solution focus, and communication that has proven effective in meeting the complex and shifting demands of software development. As a management model, it focuses upon leadership rather than coercion, and the end result (“usable software”) is frequent release of actual, effective products.
Creativity provides another management model, this one going back to the need to manage personnel in creative pursuits such as design and advertising. Management of creativity has a long tail, with considerable discussion through the years. Innovation and creativity are essential today, and some of lessons learned are that workers should be able to control their own processes, communicate, and be directed rather than being told what to do. Conflicts between creative individuals need to be solved quickly, and group dynamics are critical to getting things done.
Heterogeneity imposes additional requirements and becomes important as we move toward greater use of cross-functional teams, such as in DevOps, and greater integration of individuals from remote locations and different cultures. Management learning on heterogeneity comes from early attempts to control outsourcing. This, too, focuses upon the group dynamic, communication styles, and ensuring that one person or group does not dominate the conversation. Heterogeneous groups require a more careful evaluation of personnel, their skills, and their traits. These teams can provide great value due to diverse input but may require more time to set up, and closer monitoring of potential conflict areas.
Mobility or virtuality provides new requirements and possibilities. It has demanded a reevaluation of communication possibilities, and development of techniques for ensuring inclusion of individuals joined through digital media. In general, it has imposed a need for greater flexibility in thinking about work arrangements, objectives, evaluation, and team cohesion. Mobile management remains challenging, but can be extremely productive. Key management issues include ensuring individuals focus upon corporate strategic goals, making effective use of their time, and keeping them motivated.
There is no single formula for handling the new management requirements, and there is plenty of controversy. Currently, we are in a transitory period in which change tends to be gradual and fragmented. But a new generation is in the wings, and established management practices are likely to be at odds with expectations.