Think of the countless hours that team leaders, department heads, and vice presidents devote to supervising the work of others. Most managers are hardworking; the problem doesn’t lie with them. The inefficiency stems from a top-heavy management model that is both cumbersome and costly.
A hierarchy of managers exacts a hefty tax on any organization. This levy comes in several forms. First, managers add overhead, and as an organization grows, the costs of management rise in both absolute and relative terms. A small organization may have one manager and 10 employees; one with 100,000 employees and the same 1:10 span of control will have 11,111 managers. That’s because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers. In addition, there will be hundreds of employees in management-related functions, such as finance, human resources, and planning. Their job is to keep the organization from collapsing under the weight of its own complexity. Assuming that each manager earns three times the average salary of a first-level employee, direct management costs would account for 33% of the payroll. Any way you cut it, management is expensive.
Second, the typical management hierarchy increases the risk of large, calamitous decisions. As decisions get bigger, the ranks of those able to challenge the decision maker get smaller. Hubris, myopia, and naïveté can lead to bad judgment at any level, but the danger is greatest when the decision maker’s power is, for all purposes, uncontestable. Give someone monarchlike authority, and sooner or later there will be a royal screwup. A related problem is that the most powerful managers are the ones furthest from frontline realities. All too often, decisions made on an Olympian peak prove to be unworkable on the ground.
Third, a multitiered management structure means more approval layers and slower responses. In their eagerness to exercise authority, managers often impede, rather than expedite, decision making. Bias is another sort of tax. In a hierarchy the power to kill or modify a new idea is often vested in a single person, whose parochial interests may skew decisions.
Finally, there’s the cost of tyranny. The problem isn’t the occasional control freak; it’s the hierarchical structure that systematically disempowers lower-level employees. For example, as a consumer you have the freedom to spend $20,000 or more on a new car, but as an employee you probably don’t have the authority to requisition a $500 office chair. Narrow an individual’s scope of authority, and you shrink the incentive to dream, imagine, and contribute.
Hierarchies Versus Markets
No wonder economists have long celebrated the ability of markets to coordinate human activity with little or no top-down control. Markets have limits, though. As economists like Ronald Coase and Oliver Williamson have noted, markets work well when the needs of each party are simple, stable, and easy to specify, but they’re less effective when interactions are complex. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, how a market could precisely coordinate the kaleidoscopic array of activities at the heart of a large, process-intensive manufacturing operation.
That’s why we need corporations and managers. Managers do what markets cannot; they amalgamate thousands of disparate contributions into a single product or service. They constitute what business historian Alfred D. Chandler Jr. called the visible hand. The downside, though, is that the visible hand is inefficient and often ham-fisted.Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve high levels of coordination without a supervisory superstructure? Wouldn’t it be terrific if we could get the freedom and flexibility of an open market with the control and coordination of a tightly knit hierarchy? If only we could manage without managers.