Management Techniques for the 21st Century From Television

I’ve been binge-watching a show – Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD – and noticed something quite peculiar. The management techniques of the leaders of the SHIELD team are quite different than what I would recommend. When I thought about this compared to another favorite show of mine – Star Trek: The Next Generation – the management techniques used by leaders in both groups stood in stark contrast. As a result, I think it’s beneficial to look at the management techniques used in both shows.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD Management

Agents of SHIELD
Agents of SHIELD

I like Agents of SHIELD. I really do. It has interesting storylines, the characters are well-developed, and the acting is very good. It’s a little “schlocky”, but that’s okay – it’s superheroes. It’s supposed to be. But what bothered me was the “my way or the highway” kinds of directives that the leaders of the team give.

SHIELD is a semi-covert, military-like organization. It has a Director, responsible for all of the agents who work for it, and has several disciplines and organizational structures to support its mission Рresearch and development, operations, logistics, etc. The acronym SHIELD stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division. Very clunky. As one of the characters said:

It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out “shield.” – Grant Ward

There was one scene in particular where the acting director of SHIELD (Alphonse Mackenzie, or Mack) was trapped with his team in a sealed room being attacked by their archnemesis, HYDRA. The team is trying to hold the room against HYDRA when it looks like they might get overrun. Mack orders the team to leave while he stays to defend the room. The team speaks up and offers some additional suggestions, to which Mack replies:

“Hey! What part of “that’s an order” do you not understand?! Coulson put me in charge to make the hard call, and that’s what I’m doing. We can’t afford to lose our best agents in one fell swoop…not here, not tonight!”

So what’s the problem with that?

Well, he ignored his team. They had other ideas. They recommended other courses of action that might have improved their chances. But Mack took a “my way or the highway” approach to it and put himself in danger – needlessly. I think it was somewhat poor writing on from the series but I think it also speaks to how some people view management. Giving orders. Telling people what to do. Shutting people down when you have an idea and just want other people to do what you decided. All in all, a poor example of management.

The problem I see with this is that this isn’t the only time the leaders on the team make these kinds of decisions. They disable their teammates to “protect them”. The make seemingly-rash decisions and back them up with power rather than finesse. And they needlessly endanger themselves and others through their actions – and inactions. It’s certainly a trope, or a shortcut, to move the story forward, but it also exemplifies the worst in leadership practices.

Star Trek: The Next Generation Management

Star Trek The Next Generation
Star Trek The Next Generation

By comparison, a full-fledged military-style organization (Starfleet) exploring the universe seems to exemplify the better strategies for management. Often, Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his crew face incredible difficulties in their galactic explorations. But Picard knows that the strength of his ship is in his crew, not in his ability to do things. There are times when he acts like a typical ship captain – giving orders to do this or that – but most of the time he looks to his staff to come up with proposals, discuss the pros and cons, and then takes action based on their recommendations.

One particular episode I recall was where the USS Enterprise was headed to a planet to investigate a potential terrorist attack by Bajoran refugees. Ensign Ro Laren, a Bajoran, has been assigned to the Enterprise to help facilitate the investigation. Ro was court-martialed after making a decision that resulted in several crewmember’s deaths. She has a secret mission, of course, because it’s exciting and adds intrigue to the story. But that’s not the point. The thing that matters here is that the episode – and the discussions in particular – demonstrates the management techniques I prefer to see: delegation, actively soliciting input, and making others accountable and responsible for their work.

Picard takes the input of his crew and, in this particular case, the outcast Ensign Ro. He doesn’t discount anyone’s input but receives it willingly. He doesn’t direct. Rather, he guides. When there’s finally a decision, Picard expects that things will happen as agreed, but he delegates far more than we see in other shows – especially Agents of SHIELD. And Picard is nothing if not flexible if circumstances warrant it. No “my way or the highway” thinking here.

My Recommendations

Being a manager is a hard job. As we learn in Management 3.0, we’ve learned the wrong way to create managers for many, many years. I was fortunate that when I became a manager at Hewlett-Packard in the 1990s that they already understood that good technical people probably suck as managers. Because those people don’t have the training to do things according to the “HP Way” – an empowerment model for teams and individuals.

We often talk about “servant leadership” at the Scrum Master level, but we need to consider it at the management level as well. The things that work well for Scrum Masters should serve managers well. And managers have an additional responsibility – helping improve the system or processes that their employees work within. Finding ways to remove organizational and systemic impediments. Finding ways to help their teams be successful.

If you can, I’d recommend attending a Management 3.0 workshop. The techniques from that class have helped many thousands of managers make the transition from “my way or the highway” to a more engaged, empowered, and servant-leader style of management.

Closing Thoughts

Management is a hard job, especially in an agile environment. Most managers don’t know what their job is when an organization¬†transitions to agile. Work comes from the business directly. The team figures out how to do their own work. And Scrum Masters work to resolve impediments. But the main job of managers – as we learn in Management 3.0 – is to manage the system that people work within. To find ways to incrementally improve the process by which we do work. And to trust that the people around them and report to them are smart and capable of performing the work we need them to. That’s the measure of a good manager.

Bill DeVoe