LET'S START 2008 with a tribute to those without whom this column could not exist - you. When I began writing it 13 years ago, my elation at landing the job was quickly tempered by the realisation that, like cooking in a restaurant, a column was a regular obligation. You couldn't have a week off when you ran out of ideas. I wrote down the half-dozen subjects I could think of at the time then broke into a cold sweat: what would I write about when those dried up?
I needn't have worried. The problem was solved by the (in retrospect) inspired decision to attach an email address to the piece. It certainly wasn't a strategic decision - I don't remember making it at all - but it was crucial, because it triggered first a trickle, then a steady flow of ideas and commentary from readers that has been the column's lifeblood ever since.
It also changed the nature of the exercise. If readers were providing some of the direction and motive force, it was no longer the one-way pontification of someone pretending to be an 'expert': it was a two-way conversation, more like a joint voyage of discovery.
But it wasn't only a conversation. It was also, and much more powerfully, a system, a feedback loop in which ideas and the direction of travel were constantly adjusted by interaction with readers and fed back into new ideas. Obvious, elementary even, but it soon became clear that above and beyond generating ideas the loop was an extraordinarily powerful vehicle for learning. Just how powerful was revealed when a reader commented that the column was not only describing others' new management ideas as they emerged, it was also putting them in a framework and suggesting why they were good or bad. In short, it could connect them.
The point of relating all this is that over time the product of this two-way traffic has coalesced into what I have come to think of as The Observer's guide to management - a bit like the paper's style guide, a practical, joined-up, and (I hope) radical way of thinking about the grammar and language of management.
What does The Observer's model of management look like? Well, it doesn't much resemble anything taught at business schools (with one or two honourable exceptions). As befits its origins, it begins with the customer, and is based on systems principles.
In good Observer tradition, its hostility to the conventional command-and-control, targets-and-inspection-driven management regime that currently dominates both public and private sectors is based on optimism. Human nature is irreducibly self-interested and opportunist, the dominant theory runs, and requires hierarchical control to prevent people from subverting the organisation to their own ends.
But myriad reader reactions confirm that humans are not the desiccated automatons assumed by the standard model and they despair at the arid bureaucratic constraints imposed in its name. On the contrary, people long to do a good job and be proud of their work. In turn, it is management's job to recognise and reinforce this positive behaviour, not just structure their organisations to prevent the negative.
And, as the feedback shows, they can. First, because, as human are intentional rather than mechanical systems, organisations can take advantage of human realities ignored by conventional management such as self-fulfilling prophecies (trusting systems beget trusting people, just as the reverse is true). Second, because the opposite of top-down command and control is not bottom-up anarchy, as many assume: it is inside-out. If the organisation is built to face outwards, towards the customer rather than the chief executive, as at present, hierarchy becomes less necessary because it is the customer who exerts the discipline.
This is the opposite of soft and woolly 'people management'. On the contrary, where customers can 'pull' what they need from the organisation without friction or barriers, wasted effort of all kinds can be rigorously stripped out and, critically, the capacity of the system increases. Again, readers in public and private sectors have shown with hard examples that by abolishing activity targets and improving flow through the system, results can be predictably achieved that make the targets look laughable.
Ironically, for all its macho emphasis on hard-nosed 'reality', it is conventional management that is a failed experiment in sterile, numbers-driven theory. Observer management, in keeping with the paper as a whole, seeks to reinstate the man (and woman) in management, and put people back in charge of their organisations, rather than vice versa.
It would be absurd to pretend we've done more than make a start in rolling back the accumulated weight of 50 years. But emails every week confirm it's necessary and, in innumerable small ways, possible. So thanks to everyone who has ever written to the address below. Let's see where we get in the next 10 years.
The Observer, 6 Jamnuary 2008