If mid-level managers are useless, then why do they exist?

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

At this point I think I can reasonably say that I’ve read thousands of stories about the stupid incompetence of mid-level managers. And I’m beginning to wonder if this genre of story is teaching us an important truth. I used to think the answer was “yes” but now I’m wondering, why do companies continue to have mid-level managers, given the endless number of these stories that have been brought up, at least since the 1960s, if not earlier?

A company was working on a game called Battle Chess. It looks like an ordinary chess game at first, but there are some extras which become apparent as you make moves. When you select a piece and tell it to move, it morphs from a statue into more of an animated figure, and walks to the next spot. Then it goes back to being a statue.

….I think the rook actually picks up and eats the queen, but it’s been many years so don’t hold me to that. I know there must have been a bunch of combinations of animations which I never saw.

Anyway, about the duck. As the story goes, the artists had created all of these animation cycles for their game, and it had to pass through the review stage of a project manager. One of the artists knew the way these guys tended to want to “leave their mark” on things, and did something a little extra.

Apparently, the queen was given a little companion. As she came to life and moved around, so did the duck. It would just follow her around the board.

Supposedly, the PM saw this and said “it’s great… just remove the duck”. So, the artist went in and removed the duck (which had been carefully placed to make that easy), and that was that. The sacrificial duck kept the meddling manager away from the stuff that was important.

When I first read this story, I figured it only applied to artistic situations like that. I’ve since thought about it some more and now believe it can come up far more often.

Have you ever noticed how some people want to “touch” everything which is being done on a project, even if it has nothing to do with them? It need not be huge, but it seems like they want to have just a small deviation applied to all potential changes. It’s almost like they want to be able to point at any given part and say “I’m the reason that happened”.