Rethinking Management I: Revisiting Foundations


Defining Management as Control

Henri Fayol published his influential book on management, Administration Industrielle and Générale, over a century ago in 1916 based on his management experience that stretched back to 1860 when the workplace looked quite unlike ours. Despite the time that has elapsed, Fayol’s definition of management would be familiar to many today, because it is still used in management textbooks:

to manage is to forecast and to plan, to organise, to command, to co-ordinate and to control

We read this definition of management and it shrieks of hierarchical power. We see this model of management in light of our experience and the prevailing management ethos controlling power of those who run our organisations. In over a century, these verbs have become expressions of power and constraints on human behaviour. Forecasting and planning are the decision making processes that understand the environment and set the direction for the organisation and its people. Organise, command, co-ordinate and control are the exercises of power by a manager to set the structure of a team, to direct people, to manage delegations and activity between teams and to adjust to the performance of that team and business over time.

The combination of these focuses with the process-centric and efficiency oriented legacy of Frederick W Taylor’s Scientific Management leave many employees with little freedom to use initiative, to share their unique capabilities and to pursue intrinsic rewards. Since Fayol’s time, we have come to view management as an exercise in building the perfect system or machine to constrain human variation and to drive human performance extrinsically. In our quest to make widgets better, we have made people a widget.

The prevailing system of management and the beliefs and cultures required to sustain it are a major cause of employee dissatisfaction with work, waste and loss of human potential. Worse still a managerial system dependent on the decision making powers of a few remote partially informed managers is incapable of adapting to meet the needs of a globally connected marketplace.

Not Quite As It Seems

Intriguingly one of the reasons Fayol wrote his treatise of management was that unlike Taylor he believed that elements of these managerial roles were inherent in every job. He even includes a table in his book highlighting that frontline employees had at least 5% of their time on managerial tasks. (In comparison, he attributed no more than 60% of the time to senior management). Fayol saw education of all employees in the skills of management and better communication as a key way to improve performance and reduce dysfunction in organisations.

Fayol was an experienced practical manager setting out to describe a theory of management when there was none to guide management education. His management experience meant he was all too well acquainted with the limits and the abuses of power. A few select quotes from his book highlights these highly modern themes:

‘Management thus understood is neither an exclusive privilege not a particular responsibility of the head or senior members of the business; it is an activity spread, like all other activities between the head and members of the body corporate’

‘A good leader should possess and infuse into those around him courage to accept responsibility’

‘…Conventions cannot force everything, they need to be interpreted or the inadequacy supplemented.’

‘In dealing with a business matter or giving an order which requires explanation to complete it, usually it is simpler and quicker to do so verbally than in writing’

‘The best plans cannot anticipate all the unexpected occurrences which may arise, but it does include a place for these events and prepare the weapons which may be needed at the moment of being surprised’

‘The administrative gearing – ie every intermediate executive – can and must be a generator of power and of ideas’

‘The tendency to encroach on the part of control is fairly common in large scale affairs especially and may have the most serious consequences. To offset it, powers of control must be defined at the outset as precisely as possible with indications of limits not to be exceeded…’

As you can gather from the quotes above what Fayol meant by ‘to forecast and to plan, to organise, to command, to co-ordinate and to control’ is not quite as rooted in absolute hierarchical power as we may interpret from our modern experience. Undoubtedly, the book has many examples of hierarchies and at times reflects a 19th century worldview, but it also includes many situations that reflect the need for local initiative, employee trust, responsibility, adaptation and change. These situations even include an example of the need for employees in two silos to have direct conversation to resolve issues because going up and down the hierarchy is too difficult.

When we read Fayol, one thing we can easily forget is that he was writing in an era before modern communication and transportation technologies. Imperfect information, poor communication and autonomy of distant individuals was part of the every day management experience. These constraints were so much a part of his environment that Fayol hardly need refer to them and much of the work of management that he describes is addressing these constraints directly or by enabling employees. The only clues are that he only refers to a distinction solely between written instructions and face to face conversations. In an early twentieth century business there was only the telegram and the train. No way to coordinate the large amounts of information or activity necessary to control a business from the top in real time.

We have adapted to increased information and communication in many cases by increasing the scope of the power to control. In light of this increased flow of information and communication, Fayol’s definition of management takes on echoes of a totalitarian state. We have followed the lead of Frederick W Taylor and his suspicion of employee’s individual contributions to work, other than as sources of waste.

Another Path: Enabling Human Capability

Our organisations are not entities in their own right. They are vehicles of shared human achievement. Our definition of management has to reflect more than the power exercised within organisations. It should reflect the potential realised within organisations as people come together to create new ways to fulfil a shared purpose.

The changing nature of a connected global market means that we need to move beyond the initial frame we placed on management of controlling uncertainty and maximising performance from a given stock of human talent. Now the challenges of management are to develop creative and adaptive paths leveraging the collective talents of those in the organisation, their access to information and partners beyond the boundaries of the organisation. This exercise is inherently a challenge of building human capability – scalable learning at speed. This challenge is going to require new management mindsets and new practices.



To reinforce the mindset change required and to break the connection to the language of command and control, here’s a new working definition of management to explore in the next post. Like any good definition of management, it’s focus is on value creation. This time that focus is through capability development and not control.

to manage is to enable an organisation to better connect, to share, to solve and to innovate

We connect in global networks to realise individual and shared purposes. We share to understand, gain insight and to learn faster. We solve the daily challenges to better adapt our organisations to its work and the world. We innovate to continue to create new value for stakeholders by collectively working in new and better ways. Each of these activities can be expressed in the action of each individual employee in the organisation and in their collective collaborations.

Importantly this definition brings to the fore the collective nature of the work of management. We have tended to see management as a solo task of the manager or one concerned with the direction and performance of one employee at a time. The value of management is its facilitation of collective work, collective learning and collective value creation.

The job of management is to build the capabilities in their teams, their colleagues and their networks to connect, share, solve and innovate. Everything else is just accounting for value.


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