Tick-box management

We are seeing a hollowing out of real management skills as more tasks are moved downstream to junior staff, implemented via tick box checklists, using procedures handed down by admin staff. On the face if it this looks like an ideal corporate solution to what is usually the largest cost base for a company – salaries.  If you can get lower paid workers to cover most of the actual ‘doing’ stuff, and admin staff take more of a role in ‘setting and monitoring the tasks’ the role of the middle manager becomes redundant. After all what is the role of a middle manager? To tell their juniors what senior management want to happen and to keep a beady eye on them to make sure it is being done.

The beauty of tick box management is that it removes freedom to operate. The junior member of staff merely has to decide whether a task is or is not ‘tickable’, and if it is not, then don’t do it. At the same time monitoring the ticks as they accumulate gives an instant, often real time, feedback on performance, which gives senior management the illusion of being in control.  

The whole system is nirvana for bean counting bureaucrats. Everything must be measurable and everything is measured. And therein lies the problem. This sort of thinking is a direct result of the management fad that said “if you can’t measure it you can’t improve it”. To an extent this is true, but as Oscar Wilde noted, “a cynic is somebody who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Perhaps he didn’t have much contact with tick box managers in his day, otherwise he may have applied the description equally to them.

More recently the chief flaw in ‘tick box’ management has been neatly expressed as Goodhart’s law which was neatly para-phrased by Marilyn Strathern as: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”. Once a target has been set, no matter how well intentioned, inevitably over time activities will be distorted to hit the target rather than achieve the originally desired outcome.     

The fact is that good middle managers are much more than proxy bean counters. They lead, motivate and grow their teams. They encourage innovation and risk taking and protect their people from misguided senior management fads. They are the heart of most companies, and removing the heart is not an operation to be undertaken lightly.   


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