How to manage a horrible boss: the robot

02 December 2015 -


The rise of big data has given managers insight into areas of their business that were previously unavailable. But as access to this data increases, robot managers have started to lose site of the creativity and innovations that can drive businesses to success…

Jermaine Haughton

The late Steve Jobs admitted that his iPhone project would not have even passed a focus group, but Apple’s series of smartphones have become the market leader.

As Harvard Professor Gary King’s empathically remarked: “We're pretty good at being humans but pretty lame at being computers.” In other words, even with the helpful assistance of big data and analytics to inform decision-making, these processes are merely one of the factors that a manager must assess.

On a smaller scale, successful niche businesses such as Sunglasses For Dogs, which provides spectacles for pets to avoid the glare of the sun, and Japanese plate-smashing company The Venting Place, were based largely on creativity and their founders’ critique of their own physical experiences.

What statistics would have predicted the spectacular rise of mobile gaming app Flappy Bird in 2013-14? At one point, the simple pixelated finger-tapping game was earning its creator, Vietnam-based developer Nguyễn Hà Đông, up to $50,000 (£32,000) per day in ad revenue.

Dealing with a control freak boss

Similarly, a dependence on data to make even the simplest of decisions can be detrimental to one of a manager’s biggest responsibilities – motivating and handling staff. Product manager James Butler-Wilson, who specialises in developing children’s toys and gadgets, says he has had several bosses who spend too much time looking at graphs and analytics, rather than engaging with staff.

The 36-year-old explained: “Often creatives, designers and product managers would spend whole mornings brainstorming ideas for ways of refreshing and adding to our toy-range. Once, we produced at least three or four really solid themes and concepts for products to be rolled out around the Christmas period that we could move forward with.

“But after results from one very small focus group were less flattering than we expected, the bosses from abroad scrapped the project rather than testing it out further. Months later, that boss was fired, and his replacement revived the plans, rolling the toys out and they became a success.”

Describing his frustration, he added: “You spend so much time thinking about ideas, and different ways of doing things, but my manager was very mechanical in his approach, having to have each feature of an idea supported by evidence that the public would be receptive. But how is a company going to grow, if it doesn’t try to do new things? How are staff going to fulfil their creativity without some risk?”

Nevertheless, data experts say that many managers are failing to assess and use the data to its full potential. According to James Richardson, business analytics strategist at software providers Qlik, many workers are failing to understand the stories behind the data that’s presented to them.

How to 'up manage' a visionary boss

A sales decline in the last financial quarter or a rise in the level staff absences in the previous month each provide an interesting insight into a business, but Richardson says managers must also use other resources such as qualitative reports, meetings with colleagues, presentations and a number of other activities to understand what context those insights have occurred in, instead of jumping to swift (and possibly damaging) conclusions.

Rob Stavrou, director of consultancy at IT consultant Northdoor, says that there is growing awareness within companies that spreadsheets are creating several “versions of the truth” and that, as a consequence, the integrity of the data that they are basing management decisions and business strategies on is not sound enough.

“Regulators want greater assurance about the integrity of the raw data and more transparency about how financial and management information is being crunched to produce the numbers,” he said. “We have seen in the past couple of years that companies have woken up to the fact that spreadsheets cannot deliver that level of certainty.”

Alongside the impacts of increased data management, bosses are also finding their working style sterilised by the restrictions placed on them by their companies, research suggests.

According to a comprehensive study by CMI, a shift towards workplace cultures dominated by rules and bureaucracy means managers have become robots. The report found a startling three-quarters of managers could be ignoring the impact of their decisions on their workers by blindly following corporate rules – 28% more than the general population.

Ann Francke, CMI chief executive, said: “Too many employers fall into the trap of relying on ever-more complicated layers of rules and regulations to say what their people can and can’t do. The result is that people act like robots at work, using the letter of the law as an excuse not to engage their hearts and heads when making decisions.”

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