Learning to value ZERO Management

A couple of weeks ago I ran a session with my team about creating a shared purpose – the WHY? for our existence. I wanted to explain how it is important to have a common origin point from which to make decisions about good or bad, positive or negative. I used the example of the development of the number zero – a fairly recent development in the field of numbers.

It appears (within the fuzzy limits of the information that is available about this topic) that the number zero was conceived of in at least two stages. Initially zero was just a placeholder – a // to separate counting numbers where there was nothing to count – eg. 50210 would be 5//21//. Then it evolved as a real number, an integer between -1 and 1. It therefore occurs to me that there is a distinct difference between the nothing of null and the something of zero – null is not a point of reference but zero is.

Several years ago I had the privilege of leading a new team that was responsible for support and development of the learning management system at a large Melbourne university. The support and development functions had previously been seperate and were brought together into one stream.

The support team was proud of it’s customer service record and of the number of tickets they were able to handle in peak periods. I agreed that the ability to efficiently handle calls while providing a good customer service is a key operational metric for a support team. However, what would be a key innovation metric for such a team?

I posed the question – ‘What is the ideal number of calls a support team should answer?’ Reluctantly, with some discussion the team agreed that ZERO was the ideal number as it means that people are not having problems. However, this number also poses a threat – what would happen to a support team that has no calls?

The reality is that while ZERO should be the goal, it will never be achieved. We will always need to provide support for systems. Yet, innovating to minimise the number of calls allows the team to focus on creativity, rather than operations. This means more exciting work, new opportunities and providing a better and more up to date service.

Conclusion? In an operational team, the more work we can do to eliminate or automate the routine the more time we have for creativity and further innovation. That’s great for the coal face but what about management.

So let’s turn the question around – ‘What is the ideal amount of management that a senior staff should do?’ The answer, once again is ZERO. Management is an overhead to be minimised or eliminated – it is a cost that provides no value. But, just like with the support team, it will never be possible to reach the ideal. Management is important to ensure that teams are efficient and productive. So if we minimise management, what is it that senior staff should be doing. The answer, of course, is leadership. Management distracts from leadership, just like operations distracts from innovation.

It is therefore unfortunate that so many position titles are Manager (or even worse Director), that reinforce the wrong type of focus. We should be mindful that the value is in leadership. OK – so if that is true, then what do we do? I found an interesting Forbes article that may give a clue. For now, off to read my dusty old copy of Ghost in the Machine.

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