920 Fifth Avenue, Suite 600
Seattle, WA, USA 98104

+1 206 582 2868

How can we help?

Middle Managers: RIP

By Bryan Croeni and Jill Jago. Published on March 31, 2020.

Surveying our practically empty studio on the last day of anything remotely resembling business as usual for our firm, we were struck by the sight of row upon row of empty desks. There was more than a passing resemblance to a factory floor, an idled one at that. All that was missing were the sewing machines, the drill presses or their equivalents.

Might we finally be seeing the end of a tired metaphor that has subconsciously informed our workplace environments and worse, cultures, since the Industrial Revolution? The workplace has obviously evolved considerably but we wonder how much our thinking has? Now that we’re all working from home for the foreseeable future, perhaps a new metaphor will emerge, one that will carry us forward into the post-COVID-19 world. 

Over 10 years ago, Bryan worked with Boeing middle managers to implement an early iteration of an agile work environment, one that would allow free movement in a diverse work landscape. Working through the process, he was asked repeatedly,

“If I can’t see my people, how can I tell that they’re working?” He couldn’t help but wonder how you can tell that people are working when you CAN see them.

This was a hangover from the old metaphor, from a time when it was possible to watch the work roll off the factory floor. It’s no longer possible to “see” the work, we had to reframe the image. The mantra became “manage deliverables - not people.”

As our entire team shifts to working remotely, finding creative new ways to remain engaged and productive, we’re left wondering what remains to be managed? As all work becomes knowledge work, the notion that the primary function of several layers of organizational hierarchy is to check people’s work seems not only redundant but futile. This Brave New World does not need management - it needs leadership. They’re two very different things. Here’s how we think about it:


Steve Jobs made the poignant observation that, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Our new virtual environment is unleashing the power of this collective neural network. It will be fueled by vision, influence and inspiration. Like any ecosystem, attempts to control and manage it will most likely stifle its natural functions and lead to sub-par results.

There’s an opportunity here for all of us - leaders, former managers and team members - to hone new skills and let go of what no longer serves. 

When we finally emerge from our homes, we’re looking forward to exploring how to adapt our physical space to better accommodate our newly learned ways of teaming and collaborating.