Management: design of work environments

In grad school, I thought there were two types of advisors (and managers):

  • “hands-on” advisors, who check in with you every day and are closely involved with the details of your work
  • “hands-off” advisors, who are available for help and advice when you need it but don’t actively involve themselves in your work.

I experienced both types of advisor, and my theory was that you should go with the type that better suits your own personality. Anecdotally, students who tend to procrastinate do better with a “hands-on” advisor pushing them every day, while students who finish homework well ahead of time do better with a “hands-off” advisor who helps when needed and does not add extra pressure.

I’m now reading Peopleware, and realizing that neither style is really ideal. The ideal manager from that book tries to avoid applying pressure or being distracting (which seems hands-off) but spends much of their time actively trying to help their advisees succeed (which seems hands-on).

The real art of management, then (at least for creative/intellectual work), is helping other people to succeed in ways that ideally they will never even know you were involved.

This is analogous to how the best designs “get out of the way” so that the viewer does not even notice them (because they are focused on the function or content).

And really, we can think of management as the practice of designing an effective work environment for employees. You need to get to know your “users”, understand costs and benefits, solicit feedback, and iteratively improve the design of this environment.

I think Steve Jobs understood this, and was interested not just in designing products but in designing the company itself. It remains to be seen how well he succeeded in this latter pursuit.

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