Lazy management: what is it and does it work?

Lazy management: what is it and does it work?

Technology, company culture, remote working: the world of work is unrecognisable compared with 20 years ago, yet the role of manager has stayed pretty much the same. Matt Casey, for one, found this absurd and decided that the job needed a serious rethink.

In 2015, he was hired by to run website-building service Moonfruit. Casey decided to shake things up in a bid to manage his 40 staff as efficiently as possible. First he decided to remove performance reviews, one-on-one meetings, status updates and pay reviews. Casey also gave his employees more freedom to make decisions. These changes made his job much easier and dramatically cut costs. Over three years, he removed the entire management structure and rebuilt Moonfruit, all the while turning an annual profit. His approach, which he calls “lazy management”, is outlined in his book, The Management Delusion.

Casey now runs DoThings, a company that provides people management software, which he co-founded in 2018. Here he tells us how he came up with the lazy management concept, what it involves-and the advantages that come with this leadership style.

What is lazy management and what are its benefits?

After training and working with managers for many years, I realised that hardly any of them were any good at their job. Think about all the things a manager is supposed to be—authoritative, supportive, demanding, encouraging, brave, cautious, a good listener—and you have to be these things for so many different people. This job is just way too hard. We are setting them up to fail.

I realised it made far more sense for managers not to do this job, but for their staff to do it instead. Not that managers shouldn’t do any work, but they should give people the space to do this work while supporting them, for example, in managing their own pay and measuring their own performance. Instead of a manager delegating work, staff should go and find it themselves. It makes much more sense, and the results are far better if a manager isn’t trying to do everything because they will fail, and they consistently do fail.

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When did you realise the job of manager wasn’t working?

I was working at a tech company, and we were trying to sort out the software development team. There was this system of intricate meetings and different mechanisms to make sure conversations happened. It was supposed to be an agile management methodology, but it didn’t feel that way. We had a team of software developers, who I knew were all very good, but we weren’t producing anything. It didn’t seem to matter how many meetings we had every week.

I realised that one software developer on his own could build ten times as much as we could as a team of 40 or 50 if you just left them alone. When I tried to work out why that was, it immediately came to me: it’s because that person isn’t endlessly in meetings, doesn’t have to justify all of their decisions and they know every aspect of their job so they don’t need to get lots of other people to do it. In other words, they’re not being managed—they’ve just been given a clear goal.

Why do you think the current system of management is broken?

When we came up with the idea of managing people, the internet didn’t exist. Things were much harder. For example, if you wanted to build software of any significance 20 years ago, you needed a whole bunch of people, but now one software developer can do loads.

Take the one-on-one meeting. When I was a believer in traditional management, I would say you should have a one-on-one meeting once a week, no matter what. This was true in an era when our staff couldn’t contact us incredibly easily, but now they can just ping you a message on Teams or Slack. That problem is solved.

I realised that one software developer on his own could build ten times as much as we could as a team of 40 or 50 if you just left them alone.

Management is about moving information around. The idea that this job shouldn’t have fundamentally changed after the invention of the most powerful information-sharing tool in history is ridiculous. The job should have changed entirely, and the fact it hasn’t means that there’s no way it can be fit for purpose.

How did you go about changing the job of manager in practice?

It came down to this: what is the minimum amount of effort I need to put in? What’s the best way to give my staff full control of something? The way management previously worked was you took everything that you were responsible for and made things happen so that it didn’t go wrong. It’s a bit like setting up safety rules. You give your staff a job to do and give them the rules to follow. You’re trying to stop the worst from happening, but that means we manage teams around the worst possible results. This stifles people. You may stop a few bad things from happening, but you also prevent good things from happening.

I said: “I’m never giving anyone a pay rise. Your salary is what you come and tell me it should be, and I’ll say yes if I agree.” And that problem was solved.

Instead of trying to stop things from going wrong, I try to catch them when they do go wrong. Instead of tying everyone up in safety gear, I put up safety nets so that when they fall, it’s not a problem. If something’s wrong, I catch it fast enough that we can fix it, but I still let those things happen in the first place. I would sooner make ten mistakes and produce ten good things than make zero mistakes and produce two good things.

How did you develop this new management method?

I built it over time—I didn’t put it all in place in one go. The first thing I changed was bonus payments. We handled bonuses the way most big companies do: by giving employees a performance score out of five. Something about scoring people in that way just felt wrong. It’s also a massive amount of work—there had to be a better way.
What I came up with was incredibly simple: I said I would give everyone a default score of three, which means you are doing your job perfectly fine. If you think you should be a four or a five, then tell me. If I agree, I won’t even ask you to justify it, and if I don’t agree, we’ll have a conversation. Within five minutes, I had solved the whole bonus problem. Out of 45 reports, I ended up having one conversation, and everyone was happy.

I did a similar thing with pay rises. I said: “I’m never giving anyone a pay rise. Your salary is what you come and tell me it should be, and I’ll say yes if I agree.” And that problem was solved. It’s about the door always being open instead of having to wait for your manager to open it for you.

Do you think this is part of a broader trend of moving away from strict hierarchies?

Yes, certainly. Employees want more autonomy, they want goals. People are less and less comfortable with the idea of having a boss. When you take control away from people, they end up getting annoyed. I think it’s part of a move towards people having a manager as someone who supports them through their career but doesn’t stand in the way of it.

What are the advantages of lazy management?

Everything that people hate about work can be traced back to management. You take that away and everyone’s happier, and they produce more.

  1. Your best people thrive and need no attention. They get stuff done because everyone is out of the way. At the same time, the worst people get found out. Someone might look as if they are doing their job, but that’s just because their manager constantly makes them do it. If you need someone else to force you to care, you probably don’t care.

  2. You spend no time in meetings. When you take away management structures, you remove the need to be in meetings. Working this way, one manager can easily manage 50 people. For most companies, that means you’re down to just one or two managers.

  3. You can move away from the idea of a functional manager. This is the idea that your manager should also have your skill set, so if you’re a designer, your manager should also be a designer. Management is a specific skill set. It’s hard enough to be a brilliant manager, so you’re making this incredibly unlikely by adding another skill set in there.

  4. Far more work gets done, and it costs far less money. Managers themselves are the most expensive employees. They don’t produce anything—they help other people produce stuff—but when you think about how much is spent on managers, can we really argue that we get that much extra productivity?

Employees want more autonomy, they want goals. People are less and less comfortable with the idea of having a boss. When you take control away from people, they end up getting annoyed.

Why not just go with a flat management model that gets rid of managers altogether?

There are various approaches, but what tends to happen is the same rules are in place. There is a manager, but you’ve just called them something else. There never seems to be genuine freedom. I’m not arguing that I’ve found the perfect solution—that doesn’t exist—but lazy management is better than a structure that aims for perfection but is failing.

It’s still quite important to have a manager who you can go to, but it should be someone who is picked purely because they know how to manage. Their role should not be about controlling what people do; it should be about supporting them and offering advice, and being aware of what’s going on so they can catch potential problems. If there isn’t at least one manager, people don’t get what they need and become frustrated.

You have to accept that failures are meant to be learnt from, they’re not something you need to prevent.

Are there any situations where it wouldn’t work?

It comes down to: can anyone get hurt or die if a mistake happens? If a mistake happens and it can’t be reversed, you shouldn’t work this way. In that case you should go with traditional management, which is slow and cautious, to make sure mistakes never happen. But if your mistakes can be reversed—albeit with effort, time and cost—then lazy management is usually a better way of working.

What might happen is someone will run off with something and not ask for advice. You could lose a couple of weeks’ work. But when you look across the whole company, over those two weeks 75% of people produced something brilliant. So you have to accept that failures are meant to be learnt from, they’re not something you need to prevent.

What does it take for a company to switch to a lazy management model?

Just the will, really. I started by scrapping all the meetings and everything followed from that. If you want to start, it’s a case of passing on responsibilities to your staff. Just go from there and deal with things as they come up. There’s no planning, it’s about shifting responsibility.

Photo: WTTJ

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