Clashes between bottom line-oriented managers (stewards) and creative technical employees (creators) may be inevitable. But when those conflicts aren’t managed well, a company’s ability to innovate may be at risk.
Most technology-intensive companies today depend on specialized and talented employees, in fields ranging from high-tech product development to life sciences research. Such employees often design much of their own work; no one else is as qualified as they are to do so. The work itself may involve intangible materials and products. Often managers can’t tell what exactly is going on. As one CEO said, frustrated by his inability to manage a technical staff, “Sometimes they’re hanging out drinking coffee, other times they’re rushing around — I don’t know what any of it means.”
Never before in history have there been such profound knowledge gaps between managers and the frontline employees who create business value. In earlier times, supervisors often rose from the ranks of workers and therefore were expert in the activities being supervised. But even when that is true today — when a software developer becomes a development manager, or a genetics researcher becomes a research manager — the specialized field in which value creation occurs keeps moving forward. A software developer more than four or five years removed from actual coding is no longer expert. With the exception of a few remarkable individuals, most managers can’t keep up with all the details of advancing technology while also having full-time management responsibilities.
Being a good supervisor traditionally meant encouraging sound business practices and introducing changes to those practices as business conditions changed. Lately, something has gone radically wrong in the second part of that formulation, at least for businesses in fast-changing industries that rely on specialized employees. Now the changes sometimes come from key employees whose work managers don’t completely understand. This wouldn’t be a significant problem if managers and specialized employees always saw eye to eye. But they don’t. The worldviews of these two groups can differ drastically. Consequently, the process of business innovation can resemble a series of battles between people with very different priorities. Such conflict often entails a substantial risk of squandering corporate resources.
The idea of an ongoing struggle between results-oriented managers and technical visionaries is not new. Economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen noted it in his 1904 book The Theory of Business Enterprise.