Lessons on management from The Wire

Lessons on management from The Wire

David Simon, the creator of TV series The Wire, was in Sydney recently for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas – I wasn’t fortunate enough to attend, but I followed closely his comments on everything from Queensland’s bikie laws to social disadvantage. Simon is a wide ranging thinker who is effortlessly able to mix drama with cutting social critiques and a deep understanding of organisational psychology.

The Wire, which ran from 2002 to 2008, was touted by some critics as the greatest TV series ever made. If you haven’t watched it, you should. Each season explored a different bureaucracy – the police, the city hall, longshoremen, the education system. Together, the series provided a fascinating insight into organisational dysfunction, why and how it occurs and what the costs are. Fans will recall the great example of juking the stats, where performance-based measures backfire in an environment of mutual distrust.

One of the things I like about working at n2n is that we are mercifully free of the type of organisational dysfunction that often plagues larger organisations. In business, small is often beautiful, but rather than simply being about size, it is really down to organisational structure. The non-hierarchical nature of our business is something I value. We are in management-speak ‘de-layered’ or ‘dynamically’ structured. We don’t have strictly defined titles or roles. We all take on leadership responsibilities. We are encouraged to seek opportunities to expand our own roles or specialise. My experience with other organisations – both public and private sector – is that this structure is fairly exceptional.

What all the dysfunctional organisations featured in The Wire shared were strict levels of progression based on seniority not talent, a rigid separation of roles, an overwhelming focus on measurable indicators, such as crime statistics, and the disempowerment of those on the frontline – for example teachers being required to teach students to perform on standardised tests, rather than teaching them how to acquire basic skills.

The lesson I draw from this is that those organisations that are dynamic, with a high level of mobility between the upper and lower stratums will always have a competitive advantage over those without. They are naturally more adaptable, more innovative and more nimble.

Tim Hindle, a journalist with The Economist and the author of a very helpful primer to management theory, describes some of the positive traits of a flat-structured organisation:

  • It is less bureaucratic.
  • It can take decisions more quickly.
  • It encourages innovation.
  • It produces cross-functional employees.

But crucially, the benefits of a dynamically structured organisation are not just competitive. Non-hierarchical workplaces are just better places to work. They are more open, more fun, and they have a better culture where everyone’s input is appreciated. They also empower employees, so that when things are not operating the way they should, they can take action to change the situation, rather than simply complaining. This is probably why n2n has staff retention rates that are twice the industry average and why, despite being a hard working office, we manage to have a pretty good time along the way.

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