Management: Can you Have too Much of a Good Thing?

Good management is a good thing and organisations have a shortage of “talent”.  Having more and better managers is critical to success.

So you should put all your effort into hiring and developing breadth and depth of leadership.

Really, is more always more?

In his book David and Goliath Malcolm Gladwell discusses school class sizes.

Conventional wisdom is that the smaller the class size, the better the education.  A child in a class of 25 will get a better education than a child in a class of 35.

So a child in a class of 15 can’t help but succeed.

Apparently not, you can have too much of a good thing

There comes a point where the quality of education decreases.  In small classes:

  • There is less diversity. So their are fewer opinions and it is harder to keep a conversation running.
  • A fight between children is harder to manage, there are fewer distractions, discipline is harder to maintain.
  • Students get more help. But children need time to sit and look at a problem.

Too many teachers can be too much of a good thing.

The same is true of managers

With too many managers…

Of course organisations need management

But is lack of “talent” what is holding you back?  Or is it something else?

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class room size

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  1. Hello James,

    A good question to consider especially as our mind (and our cultural practices) are essentially linear and take for granted that more is better. For years, I did not respect the speed limit as 35-40 miles an hour did not seem to that much more than 30mph. And many of the roads allowed me to drive at 40mph with no problems.

    That changed when I went on the driving awareness course. Here I got that there is a sound logic to 30mph. If one is travelling at this speed and someone steps into the road unexpectedly then it takes so many seconds to respond, hit the brakes, and so long for the car to get down to 5mph or less. And If one hits someone at 5mph or less then the person who is hit walks away relatively unscathed. This logic is rapidly violated when one is driving say at 36mph. That 6mph extra (which seems nothing) is likely to make all the difference: between life and death; between a normal life and one where the person who is hit is disabled for life and the lives of all who love him/her are affected dramatically.

    Getting back to management it occurs to me that the deeper question is one that concern management and the logic of management. Specifically, is management as it is conceived-practiced necessary? Does management contributed to increased workability, effectiveness and performance? Or does it get in the way? What is the impact of management on innovation? Does management need to reside in an individual or can the tasks of management be distributed within-across the team that is being managed? Here I cannot help but think about the Toyota Production System (with its emphasis on putting control in the hands of the teams who do the work). Nor of the agile project management philosophy, method and practices.

    Heidegger said “Science does not think.” What he meant by that is that real thinking (in his view the only thinking) is centred on thinking the fundamental ground: the taken for granted assumptions on which the whole edifice is built. It is when the ground itself is rethought does one gain access to new possibilities and breakthroughs. During the enlightenment age many thinkers rethought that ground on which European civilisation was based – Christian theology and metaphysics. And it is through this rethinking that we are where we are today – for better or worse. Consider, that Jobs and Apple rethought the mobile phone and it is that fundamental rethinking that is sparking the huge explosion in smartphones where mobile will become the centre of communication.

    All the best

  2. James Lawther says:


    That is a really interesting point, how do we know management works?

    On Adrian Swinscoe’s blog he recently posted a piece where the point was made that if we called “managers” “facilitators” would we have a different outcome.

    I like the idea, wether or not it works unfortunately is something I don’t suppose I will ever be able to answer.



    • Hi James,
      Thanks for the shout out for my recent interview with Peter Hunter.

      Surely you would only be able to measure if it works or not if you measure what it produces. Don’t you think we spend a lot of time measuring lots of internal stuff when we should just focus on the measuring the results.

      However, that in itself produces issues…..what are the right results and what is an acceptable means of achieving them….


    • Hello James,

      I worked with a chap who worked in the Saturn brand and manufacturing facilities. In the early days, before Saturn became a threat to the GM way of doing business, Saturn generated breakthroughs in performance and management-labour relationships. How? By designing the work and ‘putting’ as much of the management in the hands of the work teams that actually did the work.

      The success and failure of the agile software development and project management movement suggest something rather similar. The organisations whose way of managing people and doing business can flex to the Agile approach find that great benefits with Agile. Then there are organisations that get no benefit at all. Why? Because of their management practices and organisational culture being command and control centred.

      All the best

  3. James:

    Thanks for your post. You’re probably right that we have too much management… but that is an incomplete statement. My experience is that one supervisor has a tough time developing and providing support for more than 15 people, and 5 – 8 is a better number. What I think we have is too much of one kind of manager, but, in fact, not enough management.

    The question is what is needed. Maz is on to something with his reference to the Toyota Production System. Swinscoe’s interview with Hunter talks about managers as facilitators. For Swinscoe’s interview subject, Hunter, the job is to get people what they need (information, tools, material) so they can get the job done. The “higher” you get in an organization, the broader that mandate is. Wally Bock (Three Star Leadership) says that a supervisor’s job is 1) to achieve the mission of the organization and 2) to look after his or her people.

    The Toyota people say that they build people so they can build cars. Mike Rother at U Michigan is working out an element of the Toyota Production System that he calls an improvement kata (a set of practiced moves or a pattern). The improvement kata constantly challenges people to figure out how to make the current condition better. And the coaching practice that goes with it is designed to constantly elevate the kinds of problems that the supervisor/manager is handling. At the end of the day, it is about developing people.

    This certainly fits my experience. Most “managers” and “supervisors” are not clear what their job is – after all, most have never had any kind of training about how to do their job. The result is that, erroneously, they think being a manager means bossing people about what to do. I’ve concluded that if the manager has to boss people about what to do next, that is a sign that the organizations systems don’t work, since it should be visible what to do next.

    In the end, I think we have “too much” of the “bossing” type of managers, and too little of the kind of manager who builds people and puts systems (procedures and practices) in place so that people can get on with doing their jobs. So your comment is correct… as far as it goes. It just doesn’t go far enough.


    • James Lawther says:

      Thanks very much for the comment Hugh, I agree whole heartedly.

      I think the point I was trying to make (badly) was primarily that we put huge amounts of effort into recruiting and developing managers, but how do we know the root cause of our problem is too few managers?

      Could we not put our efforts into some other activities instead? Like for example some of those you list.


      • Is there not an issue that persists for many in business that says that if you have experience, knowledge and technical expertise that will make you a capable manager?

        We need to separate technical competency from management competency if we are to solve this. They are not mutually exclusive but we need to treat them separately.


        • Adrian:
          I agree 100%.

          I worked for a very smart VP who figured he could simply re-arrange his managers and the technical competency didn’t matter much. The result was as difficult for staff as a view that says that management competence is irrelevant. Both are necessary.

          And unfortunately most people get little or no training on the management competencies. Mostly we learn through copying people, or avoiding behaviour we didn’t like. But there is no rigour or structure.

          Although there are lots of MBAs around, I would argue that the MBA curricula don’t cut it for the kinds of competence at the heart of this thread.

          What is fascinating is that when you do give managers and supervisors some structured skills, they use them because they work. Their lives get easier! Then work life become much more fun for them and for their people.


          • James Lawther says:

            Interesting Hugh, so what should be on the curriculum?

            I am not sure that the standard HR response of objective setting skills and team work really cuts it fro me.

            Thanks for the comment.


  4. James:
    It is a great question.

    I have two starting points.

    First is some very good work done by the Training Within Industry Service in the US during WWII. There they were face with large numbers of managers and supervisors who were brand new to the task, and worse, often only had a few more months experience than their charges. The folks in TWIS realized that unless they could give those new supervisors a solid set of skills, there was no way the US could ramp up its production like it needed to. (For example, the US went from making 1 million tons of shipping a year to 19 million in just three years, multiplying the workforce by a factor of 13!).

    They came up with 5 needs of a supervisor: knowledge of the job and of responsibilities (both specific to the company) and three general skills. Their list was the ability to instruct, the ability to improve methods, and the ability to handle a performance issue with people. So they built three modules to address those three general skills. Thats the core of what I use in my work.

    I believe there are two others that are needed: the ability to set priorities, and the ability to listen constructively.

    That’s the first starting point.

    The second is actually related, and it is a coaching practice related to continuous improvement that was first articulated by Mike Rother (see my first note above.) Rother identifies a practice of asking five questions that gives any manager or supervisor the ability to constantly improve an operation based on data and many small experiments, rather than on opinion. The five questions are:
    1) What is your target condition?
    2) What is your current condition?
    3) What are the obstacles to reaching your target condition, and which ONE are you working on now?
    4) What is your next step / experiment, and what do you expect?
    5) When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

    Asked in a consistent fashion, it works at all levels in an organization and develops people’s ability to think, to solve problems, and to make improvements.

    With those two elements – the TWI program augmented with setting work priorities and listening and the improvement practice articulated by Rother – I think you have the core of a first rate curriculum.

    Yes… there is lots more. But from what I have seen, if we could just get that, there is so much improvement we’d see that we’d be busy for years!

  5. James,

    I think we have too many people who think they are managers but are not. I think we promote people into management positions who should not be there. Many companies think that management is the natural career progression. We have nowhere else for them to go, so let’s make them a manager. Ugh. I think this is a major source of pain within organizations.

    Annette :-)

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