There’s no place for management any more. What will replace it?

The Drucker Forum has put out a call to management scholars, executives and consultants to “reframe management”.  The existing management model that dominates today’s business practice and education – Drucker Forum calls it the “inflexible machine-management model” – is at odds with today’s complex and unpredictable world. Therefore, they propose, let’s replace this model with another, “The Next Management”.

A more appropriate step would be to recognize that management as a concept is no longer needed and no longer valid. There should be no “management”, whether the old model or a new one. When business sensed the need for management as a rational approach to bring order to the new scales of mass production, mass distribution and mass marketing that the Industrial Revolution made possible, the science of complex systems had not been formalized. This science, specifically the science of complex adaptive systems or complex evolving systems is genuinely new. The business world didn’t have its insights and findings when management was invented. They had Newtonian physics; economics aspired to be like physics; and management looked to economics for initial guidance. 

We now have the opportunity to learn from the latest advances in systems science.

Business firms, industries and economies can themselves be viewed as a member of a class of complex evolving systems. Evolving systems display these three attributes.

1. They are composed of numerous diverse and interacting components that have the potential to combine in vast numbers of different configurations – a multiplicity of emergent structures. It is impossible to predict the configurations that will emerge, which will be successful, which will survive and which will die.

2. The multiplicity of new configurations is autocatalytically generated, simply from the interaction, combination and recombination of the components. More firms are born than survive, more projects and business models are created and tested than actually persist and become established.

  • The term autocatalysis introduces one of a number of related principles from systems science that are fundamental for emergence: self-organization, autopoiesis, self-creation. They all relate to the idea of evolution: that there is constant endogenous change that has its own energy and can’t be stopped or even influenced by exogenous forces.

3. In the multiplicity of new emergent configurations, as in evolution, there are winners and losers, those that survive and thrive and those that don’t. Winners are established through a process of selection. Configurations are preferentially selected based on function (sometimes referred to as fitness, as in fitness for a purpose).

Among business firms, the function that is selected is the creation of value for customers. The market is the selection mechanism, through customers’ willingness or unwillingness to pay for value.

The functional capacity for value creation is determined by functional knowledge – knowledge of what actions are advantaged in value creation. There is actually a scientific law in play: the law of increasing functional information, that the system will evolve (its functional information will increase) if many configurations of the system undergo selection for function. Firms are knowledge building systems utilizing experimentation to generate new knowledge.

Therefore, the function of “management” – which can be thought of as an arrangement to attempt to bring developmental order to a firm, making the results it achieves more predictable and controllable – is replaced by experimentation, a number of concurrent trials, tests and bets with no attempt to predict or control outcomes since no predictability is conceivable. 

There’s an equivalent in economics, which is entrepreneurship: action under absolute uncertainty. Entrepreneurship is a mindset of imagining multiple possible futures and setting in motion a selected set of experiments from which one of those futures will autocatalytically emerge through the mechanism of creating value for customers, a value that is unpredictable from the entrepreneurial perspective because there is too much swirling change in the evolving ecosystem for any prediction or estimation.

Management as a rational approach to bring order has no role to play. Decision problems are no longer well defined, and therefore not amenable to rationality. The challenge is to translate knowledge and expertise into new experiments, without predicting how they will work or what the payoffs might be. This challenge can’t be conceived as management in any form. Entrepreneurship is the method to establish new starting conditions for new value creation, and market selection will take care of future allocation of resources between winners and losers.