What are we trying to manage?

Ben Hill
3 min readJan 30, 2021

At one time, ‘managing’ meant planning, organizing, directing and controlling the work of others.

It meant owning the problem- whatever it was- and knowing the most about it; holding all the cards, having the answers, deciding the agenda. Calling the shots and setting the pace.

And that definition of management worked, when the jobs to be done were relatively stable and unchanging; when the information we had to work with was more static and finite; when we could reasonably anticipate what was coming, and when the variables impacting our work could be more easily accounted for.

Management worked when the people doing the managing were the experts, directing other people with less experience and knowledge doing the same kind of work. It worked when change itself felt more predictable.

But it is axiomatic that COVID-19 pandemic and all its impacts are steadily disabusing each and every one of us, in all institutions and industries, of our certainty. If there is anything we can count on it is that things are changing.

If we didn’t accept it before, the great office dispersion of the pandemic helped anyone supporting the work of other knowledge workers confront the truth that not only can they not control what their teams do…they can’t control how they do it, they can barely control when they do it, and they can only hope to influence how well they do it. And we already knew we can’t control what customers will want, or what our stakeholders will decide is important. So as it turns out, we can’t really control much of anything, except what we do.

How do we plan when we don’t know what’s coming? How do you organize and direct work that you’re not really doing? What if it’s work you’ve never done? In this time of ever- increasing specialization, when there are more deep and diverse forms of expertise in more varied knowledge domains than ever, when management seems a futile endeavor, what will it mean to lead?

It might mean to prescribe less, and listen more.

To pay attention. And be more judicious about what you pay attention to.

Ask more questions like: Who? Why? Why not? What if, and how will we know?

Scan the horizon. Notice what’s happening, and make sense of what you see.

Connect some dots- see a larger picture and remind us what’s at stake.

Put whatever this is in context, and give people a reason to care, or a target to hit.

Instead of managing people or processes, it may mean fostering culture, creating the conditions, building the team.

The unmanageable is all the aspects of work and teams that we fool ourselves into thinking we can control or even influence; but in other sense, it is that larger world beyond our control, the environment, the market, the weather, the situation and however it will unfold. We have to contend with it but we can be intentional in how manage ourselves (or lead others) through it.

Are you trying to manage the unmanageable? On one hand it’s impossible; on the other, it’s essential.

Postscript: some reading option for erstwhile managers who may be looking for a new angle of approach.



Ben Hill

Change is why; stories are what; learning is how.