Will AI kill the middle manager?

If AI will make tomorrow individuals as productive as today’s teams, will there still be a market for full-time managers?

Credits: Alex Gruber

I run into a Paul Graham thread on AI-aided coding and productivity, in which he conjectured that AI might reduce the need for middle managers:

Maybe what AI eliminates is not programming jobs but middle management jobs, because companies can be so much smaller that they don’t need so many layers of management.

The rationale for this expectation lies in AI’s power to enhance individual productivity.

Imagine there are folks who can wield AI to be 10x more productive. Then, Graham argues, starting and growing a business could be done with a relatively small team of those individuals. “You could do with 8 programmers what would have taken 80, and a company with 8 programmers is much easier to fund and run than one with 80.”

One of the replies to Graham’s tweet caught my attention. Salil Sethi, wrote:

Having worked in management consulting for 8 years, mid-management communicates leadership vision and goals to the tactical workers.

AI is unlikely to take out the communication layer.

As a management consultant, it’s understandable how he might feel pressure to defend the need for middle managers. And, indeed, he has a point.

In big organizations, middle managers are necessary. A CEO, CTO, or head of product cannot communicate their vision to dozens of teams nor keep tabs on their individual progress. There’s not enough time, and their position demands thinking big picture, inspiring people, and building relationships with collaborators and competitors.

When needed, a good middle management layer is invaluable. But it is a fact that the need for one or more such layers is a symptom of a company losing its nimbleness. Just ask Meta.

But, and here is my hope for our AI-powered future, if individual productivity can skyrocket, then a small group can generate a sizeable impact without needing to grow and, therefore, without needing middle management in their organization. In “What happens when publishing apps is as easy as sharing videos?” I offered a thought experiment:

Imagine what could happen if anyone could get their app ideas into the world. Imagine how much time could be saved if anyone who needed to automate a mundane task could write a script for it. Imagine all the untapped potential that could be unleashed and all the progress it would generate.

The framing in the article was focused at the individual level, but the same applies to small groups of people getting together to execute a shared vision.

Add distributed work to the mixture, with its power to connect like-minded folk regardless of their location, and we have good reasons to be hopeful for the future. As Dror Poleg puts it, AI and Remote Work are a match made in heaven.

In a sense, Salil Sethi is right. AI is unlikely to take out the communication layer because that’s a job for humans.

What AI is likely to do, however, is shrink the need for full-time middle managers who deliver value through communication and coordination instead of creation.

If you’re a middle manager, it might be time to follow Brian Doran’s advice:

Things at the top of the stack become easier, which means more people can do a thing, but less people will be needed per thing, so if you aren’t the one building the thing, you might be the odd person out.
Conversely, things at the bottom of the stack will become harder, which means less people will be capable.

Actually, that’s good advice for all of us. Either become capable or become a commodity.