“Hey, Johnny, what’s Sheryl doing? She’s been in meetings the last week. She’s only come out for our one-on-ones. I’ve been trying to catch her. I need to ask her some questions about how to give feedback to Cathy about this problem.”
Terry pointed to his architecture picture. “I know this architecture is not going to work. I need to find the words. I thought management would be so easy. When Sheryl asked me if I wanted to be a manager, I thought this part would be a piece of cake—but it’s not. Every time I think of what I want to say, it comes out wrong.
But, every time I text Sheryl, she asks if it’s an emergency. I say no, and she asks if it can wait for our one-on-one. I say okay. This is so unlike her. What’s going on, do you know?”
Johnny replied, “Terry, there’s a management ‘summit’ next week. She’s getting ready for it. She and the other directors are pulling their hair out. They’re supposed to have their year-long plans for projects and budgets. It’s a laugh, because we know it’s all going to change, but that’s what they’re suppose to do.”
“They’re supposed to predict the future?” Terry asked. “Marketing can’t make up their minds for a quarter at a time and the managers are all supposed to predict a year-long plan for projects and budgets? That’s just stupid.”
Terry thought for a minute. “Do you think she needs help, even if it’s stupid?”
Johnny swiveled in his chair. “Gee, I never thought of that. Maybe she does. We could text her and see if she does need help. She might appreciate it. At least she would know that we’re thinking of her.
“In the meantime, do you want to discuss what you’re going to say to Cathy about her design? Maybe you shouldn’t be the one to say it. You’re the manager, but you aren’t the be-all and end-all for design decisions, right? How does the rest of the team feel about it? Can you enlist someone else?”
“Oh, maybe that’s a good way to do this. I don’t have to be the one to tell her that her design isn’t going to work. She hates it when I tell her these things anyway. Now that I’m in management, she doesn’t want to hear that from me.”
Johnny grinned and said, “Well maybe you don’t know enough anymore to tell her that. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t want to hear it from you. You need to have other people tell her. If it’s really true. Why do you think her design isn’t good enough?”
“See this over here? Well, this is going to fail in these three ways under load in these circumstances.” Terry and Johnny discussed the technical details for a few minutes.
“Okay, you convinced me,” Johnny said. “Here’s a way I’ve used in the past to get people to think about their designs. Ask everyone to choose someone else’s design and say, ‘You need to think about three great things about this design, and think about three ways your design could fail.’ If you can’t think about three and three, you haven’t thought clearly about the problem enough, and we all need to go back to the drawing board and experiment some more. Maybe a spike or two for a couple of hours, but we need more ideas. That way, you don’t need to give Cathy specific feedback about her idea, but you can get everybody to give her feedback, or get her to think about her idea some more. And, we can give Sheryl the breathing room she needs for her summit. Okay?”
“Great idea! Exclaimed Terry. “You really have this management thing knocked, don’t you?”
“Uh, not really, Johnny replied. “I’ve been working at it a lot longer than you. It’s still hard work for me.”
Management Work Is Work
If you think about what managers do all day, it’s different from technical work. Managers attend a ton of meetings. Some of those meetings are about the budget. Some are about requirements for projects—not necessarily the specific features, but how big the project or program should be, the goals of the project, when to start it, when to staff it, the tradeoffs of the project. Some meetings are about customers—their problems and how to tackle the solutions. Some meetings are one-on-ones with team members. Sometimes, managers facilitate learning sessions with their teams.
All of these meetings require preparation. At least, if the meetings are going to be useful, they require preparation. And, I don’t know about you, but what I see is managers running from meeting to meeting to meeting, with barely enough time for a bio break or lunch in their day.
Believe me, management work is work, even if it appears that what managers mostly do is run from meeting to meeting.
Much of Management Work Is Behind the Scenes
This conversation between the two managers was a preparatory conversation. One of the managers, Terry, is a newer manager who has a problem with how to provide feedback to one of his employees. But his manager, Sheryl, is unavailable. What does he do? Luckily, his colleague, Johnny, is available.
Johnny provides coaching to Terry, in the form of other options. It seems simple when Johnny suggests it, doesn’t it? Let’s review what Johnny suggests:
- Let other people provide the feedback.
- Verify that the problem exists.
- Use a problem-solving technique: Find three great things about someone else’s design and three problems in your design. This approach comes from Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management.
- Experiment more: Spike the problem to develop alternative solutions.
None of those alternatives require the manager to provide direct feedback to the employee on the design. Why? Because maybe the manger does not know enough! They do require that the manager provide a problem-solving environment in which the team can flourish. That’s a preparatory approach. That’s when the manager creates the environment for the team to do its best work.
Managers Who Interfere Might Be Doing the Wrong Work
It’s sometimes difficult to know exactly which work to perform as a manager. From the little discussion we heard above, we have the feeling that Johnny might be a more adept manager than Terry is. And, that might be because Johnny has more experience.
If it’s possible, when you’re a manager, you want to create an environment in which people can perform their best work. You don’t need to direct their every move. You don’t need to tell them what to do. You don’t need to estimate for them. In fact, you should not tell them how long the work should take, how to do the work (unless required by some regulatory body), micromanage, or otherwise interfere. You want to tell people the results you want, ask if they have what they need, know when you’ll check back with them, and then leave them alone. Keep in mind that this is easier said than done.
That is why management work looks easy. Because management work is all about facilitating the work of other people. It’s much easier to interfere. It’s so much more difficult to perform your own work. But, when you perform great management, your team can create great products. And, that’s why we have management.
© 2013 Johanna Rothman. This article was originally published at Stickyminds.com. Want to read the next myth? That’s Myth 20: I Can Compare Teams (and It’s Valuable to Do So)
Tags: agile management, engineering management, management myth, software management