June 10, 2004
How many posts?????
What follows is my NotCon talk broken out as a set of blog posts, so people can discuss the individual slides, or add more useful advice if needed. If they feel like it. Which I hope they do as it was a bit of a faff... :-)
[Update - as some people are coming directly to this page, there's a powerpoint of this you can download over at http://www.sparklefluff.com/siam]
Shit, I'm A Manager - The Talk
people-management for the
previously proudly unmanageable.
This talk was originally intended as a 45-minute talk at NotCon 04, but there wasn’t time for that. It also wouldn’t fit into a standard lightning presentation, so after a bit of begging Dave Green let me have twenty-minutes-and-no-more-including-questions. This is about the limit of what I thought I could get through in that time.
Anyway, quite often, when I’ve been talking to now-getting-on-a-bit techie friends about work, the thing that seems to strike terror into their hearts is the day-to-day work of people management. And yet, when I dig down a bit further, the problems aren’t quite so hard after all, and with some nudging they can actually turn out to be positive benefits.
The only reason I can say this is that I used to be one of the crappest people managers I knew, and over the course of a few years I became one that people actually wanted to work for.
So this talk is a heavily-edited mix of that pub advice and my own bitter experience.
I’m assuming that you’re someone technical who’s either about to start managing people, has just started managing people, have been managing people for ages and it’s all going tits-up, or just want to know why your boss is acting so weird.
Anyway, lets begin by looking at some of the things nobody tells you you’ll go through when you first become a manager...
Becoming a Manager is Cack Because...
- This is a new job
- It is harder than the old one
- You are answerable and taking blame
- You’ve probably had no training for it
- Your confidence may be shot
The fundamental thing that nobody tells you is just how different this new job is from your old one. You have pretty much changed career. Instead of being judged on how well you code, design or write copy, your job now revolves around the entirely new set of skills around managing people.
And it’s horrible, and hard,particularly at first, and everyone will give you shit. But then that’s why the money’s better.
The other thing to bear in mind is that you’re unlikely to get any training for your new career until things start going wrong. (And if you’re wondering why your boss has to go on a week-long residential course, just think how many bad habits need to be fixed in *them*!)
As a result, you may end up thinking that they’ve made a mistake, and everyone’s expecting you to fail, and that you’re shit.
But take heart, we’re going to get you through this. Let’s take it back to basics…
So What Is This 'Management'?
- Working out what you want staff to do
- Telling them it so they can do it
- Making sure they are still doing it
- Working out how to do it better next time
This seemingly simplistic definition of management is actually incredibly useful. There are a number of times when I’ve been going into meetings where I’m feeling uncomfortable for a non-specific reason, or where I feel like things are getting out of control, and coming back to this list makes me realise I’ve missed one of the key stages out.
If you can get to number 3 on this list, then chances are the project will happen in something like the timescale you planned.
If you can get to number 4, you’ve reached the holy grail, because this is the point where Your Job Gets Easier. So that’s something to aim for.
Of course, what I’ve documented here is the craft of management. The ‘art’ is to do this without pissing your staff or boss off. So let’s have a look at them for a moment…
Who Measures Your Success? (And at what?)
(and at what?)
|Management skills||Prior skills|
I wanted to look at how the people above and below you think about you and the work you do. So I’ve taken a view of the intellectual effort the organisation expends on you over any decent period of time.
And it breaks down, in my experience, roughly like this:
Most of the time spent thinking about you is your staff worrying about how well you are managing them - keeping the plates spinning to maximise the value of what they’re doing.
They’re also a bit worried about your previous experience, but only because they don’t want to write code you could just tear apart. But hey, that’s good, it keeps them on their toes.
Your boss is thinking about lots of other things, but when he does think about you, the only thing he thinks about is how well you’re managing the team. He’s not interested in your coding skills at all. This is even true in hybrid management jobs where you’ve kept some day-to-day work. From the top, the management is the bit that matters.
There’s an important corollary of this…
the LAST THING
you should do
is your old job
God, we’ve all done it. Things are grim, I’d better muck in…
No. That’s the last thing you should do.
You can delegate the coding work - pay people overtime if you have to. But you can’t delegate the management part. If you stop doing that, then *nobody* is managing the team, and things will spin out of control.
The other consequence of “oh, I’ll just look after the design of the homepage” is that you instantly lose your perspective.
And Perspective Is One Of The Most Important Things A Manager Needs To Have.
Do everything you can to hang on to it - your staff need you to make sensible decisions while they’re in the thick of it.
Also, if things are that damn busy that you feel the need to get involved, it goes to show there’s even more stuff that needs you to have perspective on.
Okay, lets take a look at some of the real howlers in people management…
The General Traps
- Doing what you pay your staff to do
- Managing your staff’s staff
- Being the weak link in the business chain
- Having to win
- Slagging off other teams/managers
- Sticking to your own (new) kind
- Wanting to be liked
- Too much email
Some of these are things I’ve heard about, some are things I’ve done. You may be able to tell which are which.
- Please understand that ‘keeping your hand in’ is just for your own vanity. You haven’t got time to read the books properly, you can’t keep properly in practice, and when you do start getting involved you’re slower and more likely to break things. Remember, your job is perspective, and keeping the machine running properly. The next is a special case of the first. Let’s say you’ve got a designer working for you, and there’s a junior designer working for them. Some problem comes along with the junior designer. DO NOT go and fix the problem with the junior designer yourself. Try and get the designer to fix it. Lead them through possible solutions. If you fix it, then all you’re doing is undermining their authority, and meaning you’re going to have to micromanage their staff too. And take pity on them, in a year or two they’ll be in your position. Do you want them to have as little people-management experience as you?
- Another absolute golden rule - particularly in our business - is Don’t Piss Away Your Staff’s Work. They will never forgive you for it. If you ask them to write a report on something, read it. If there is work they’ve done that has to be in for a deadline, don’t be the one that forgets and misses it. They won’t trust you as their leader if the work they do goes nowhere through lack of care.
- You are not on Usenet. Don’t get hung up on being right. Creating a culture where people collaborate on ideas isn’t going to work if you insist on crushing everybody who makes the slightest mistake. All you’ll do is reduce creative throughput, and you’ll also miss out on really great germs of ideas because you’re too busy looking for ways to prove how clever you are.
- Shit things happen in business. And while people need to let of steam, and you shouldn’t be an apologist for the failings of the business, it is your job to give your staff perspective and a good understandable reason why the bad things have happened. Say that you’ve developed 20 ideas and only two were commissioned. Don’t slag off the commissioner - it *is* their decision, it’s what the business pays them to do, and there may be factors you just don’t know about that will later make you look stupid. Acknowledge people are upset, but don’t let people assume that everyone else in the business is an arsehole. Even salespeople. It just makes it harder when you suddenly find you have to collaborate.
- Make sure you keep in touch with, and meeting new, people up and down the business chain. You’re going to need a sense of whether plans and projects aren’t working, and to keep an eye on people who are going places for when the next reshuffle comes. And they can be a great sounding board.
- It helps. But it’s not essential.
- As a previously-technical manager, you’re going to be in all sorts of meetings with scary people where your interpersonal skills are going to be pushed to the limit. Practice talking. To your staff. You do at least have something in common with them. It’s higher bandwidth too!
Anyway, let’s get onto things you don’t have to worry about…
Myths of Management
- The perfect manager
- You can’t ask for help
- You must have the solution
- Geek knowledge isn’t power
- Budgets are hard and scary
- There is no such thing as the perfect manager. We practice our craft better on some days than others. Occasionally there’s a day when I do all the things in this talk. There are also days when I do none of them. Acknowledge you have good and bad days. To yourself and your staff.
- The business has given you responsibility, but that doesn’t mean it’s all your problem. As manager, the assumption is you’re a grown-up and will protect the organisation. If you don’t tell anyone things are going badly it is your fault. If you tell your boss and they don’t help, it’s their fault. In fact, you have a responsibility TO ask for help, not survive without it.
- Your job is to find the best solution. It may be the idea you have in your head, but if you don’t ask around you’ll never find out if your staff had a better one. Keep them involved - take on board what works, and reject what doesn’t. You should always be prepared to be convinced otherwise.
- There are certain people we work with who are very powerful gateways to incredibly important stuff. Any management strategy that assumes they don’t have power will backfire. Fear will get you some of the way, but that resentment will fester. Far better, and less time consuming, to lead a gang of willing accomplices instead.
- Budgets are an estimate. And often your finance director already knows exactly how much you’re going to get anyway. Also, by the time you’ve taken out all the personnel and office space and IT costs, the bit you’ve got to make decisions about is only about 10%. Which isn’t so scary after all.
Time to move on to some of the softer skills…
“That’s unfortunate. So what are you going to do about it then?”
(Jon Lewin 1959-1999 RIP. He was fab.)
“You have to give producers something to produce”
- “If you can let people do the thing they really want to do, they will do a good job”
Empowerment eh? Yadda yadda yadda management newage wankspeak eh?
Well, often, yes. But here are three important quotes that did make a difference to me. The first comes with a story attached.
- It was the second day at a new job, where I was working on a cunning project with the help of two people who had very similar names. It was vitally important that one knew every single thing that was going on, and also that the other didn’t. I breezed into the office, all full of plan-of-attack, and rang the wrong one. I told them everything - an absolute disaster. So I went to my boss, as I always had before, to say that I’d broken it, expecting them to fix it. Except they didn’t. They said what’s in this first quote. And I suddenly realised that I could think of ways that I could fix it. And that my boss trusted me to do it. So I came up with some things to do, he finessed them, and off I went - full of potency and fulfilment.
- This next quote is about choices. If people don’t have choices they won’t have any sense of ownership of a project. So only specify things as far as is needed for people to start, and end up where they need to be. If you document every last thing to the nth degree, you’ll get a lacklustre performance out.
If someone really desperately wants to do thing x, and it’s within your power to let them have a go at it, why not? People who are doing what they want to do perform better and need less maintaining.
A corollary to this is that you shouldn’t assume everybody has to do a bit of everything. If someone is never happier than when working on quizzes, and someone else is completely in the zone resizing images in photoshop, making them do loads of each other's work will just make them both miserable.
- Behaviour not people
- You are giving the feedback
- Stick to facts
- Avoid ‘the praise sandwich’
- Empathy: Drill down to root causes, weaknesses and interests.
- Is it actually you?
- Start small, and do it immediately
- when giving people feedback, make sure they’re left with enough spirit to do better in future. Focus on how they have behaved well or badly, not on whether they are a good or bad person.
- If you begin any criticism with “people have been saying” or “I have heard”, the first reaction is “Well, who?” and the second is “Why didn’t you stick up for me?” Find something you can defend as a criticism from you, and work with that.
- Don’t get too woolly on opening gambits. State what went wrong and ask why - not aggressively, but firmly. This bit of software was late and we didn’t know it was going to be - why was that? This requirement wasn’t included in the design - why was that? Often people know they’ve messed up.
- Jesus, how I wish I’d known about this. Okay, you’ve got something a bit shit to tell someone, so you think “I know, I’ll tell them something nice either side to soften the blow”. You are doing this to make yourself feel better, not them. A sly or egotistical person will never hear the criticism in the middle - and if it comes to a tribunal, remember it could be counted as an overall positive meeting. Meanwhile, an insecure person will never hear the good stuff either side. Say the thing you have to say, and just that.
- Try to fix the cause not the symptom. If people get aggressive, particularly over many discussions, try and find out what’s really driving it. There is normally some insecurity, need or other subtext to it that you need to get to. “You won’t work with x because they’re an arsehole” “What aspect of their arseholeness impacts on the work you do? Is there a particular thing that winds you up?”
- Be wise enough to know if it’s really you that’s got the problem. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address it, but be honest about what you’re trying to do.
- Nobody likes to be told “I’m really pissed off with the thing you did 3 months ago”. And don’t try and fix the biggest problem right now. Try and fix something small by the end of the day, then within 2 hours, then within 5 minutes. Work your way up to the big problems.
- Team meetings - for team-wide info only
- Routine meetings - for each staff member, not you
- Task-setting meetings - do your homework!
- All other meetings - is just chatting?
- Remember that team meetings are only for information everybody needs to know. Particularly beware the “forking submeeting”. It happens like this…you’re working round your team leaders, and suddenly an issue comes up and you ask them more about it. Suddenly you’re having a meeting with just that team while everyone else hangs around being bored. Don’t do it.
- Meetings with your individual staff members are for them, not another chance for you to gab on for an hour. Ask them lots of questions about how things are going, approaches they’re using, problems they need your help with. And listen to the answers - you will learn a lot.
- Look up SMART objectives on google. And make sure you actually know what you’re going to ask them to do before you have the meeting - remember the definition of management?
- And try not to go to, and definitely don’t set up, a meeting with no agenda. It’s just doomed to waffle.
Hire, Sire, Fire
- Don’t hire in your own image
- Prepare your staff for moving on
- Training requirements
- Hiring people just like you may seem like a good idea at first, but it’s actually pretty risky long-term. Imagine you come in to work one morning with the best idea in the world – a real killer. If everyone is just like you, there won’t be anyone to tell you it’s actually a heap of shit. So make sure you hire a wide variety of people, based on their skills at doing the job rather than if you get a nice vibe. Hiring ‘new’ types of people may be a little tricky at first, but keep with it, and your team will create a new stronger version of team spirit, where they realise that any decision everyone agrees on is really strong.
- It’s tough, but you’ll also have to accept that your organisation is dynamic. Your staff are continually developing, and they will move on eventually. Remember it’s not personal – after all, you may have moved into this role without hating your previous boss! When someone is moving on, it’s an opportunity to reevaluate what everyone’s doing, and perhaps call some of the other interesting people you’ve been cultivating in for an interview. Also, learn when to spot someone needs to find something more challenging to do – you never know when that pastoral view will repay big-time.
- Appraisals – your HR department should advise you on this and give you training. There will be a local policy. If they offer workshops go on them. Twice if you can.
- Sometimes staff see the training budget as their ‘fun fund’. If a programmer comes in and says they want to go on a radio sitcom writing course, you should take that as a cue that there’s some bit of them that’s not being utilised in their job.Try to drill down to find that fundamental, and between you come up with a way that those skills could be used for the benefit of the business.
So What Can I Do?
- Acknowledge it’s new
- Stop buying technical books
- Develop your skills
- Talk to other managers about the process
- Ask your staff where weak spots are
- Debug your management
- Lead by example
- Get used to the idea that you’re trying to do something new and give yourself a bit of a break
- I’ve got a mighty great bookshelf filled with all the O’Reilly Perl books, books on Unix, C, XML, Java, PHP, Photoshop, Interactive TV, Flash, you name it. I have a whole *five* books on people management, and I suspect I’m actually above the norm on this. And do you know what? They were great, and I learned stuff about myself from them. Obviously you’ll quickly skip over the asset-stripper hatchet-man books, but there are lots of good inspiring reads out there. Well, I say that, but it doesn’t stop me – I started a new project the other day, and what did I buy? A book on UML. It has no bearing on the project whatsoever – I should have bought a book on how to manage Chinese-language website builds from the other side of the globe, but I panicked. Anyway, try to remember this where you can.
- Management is made of a bunch of learned skills – interpersonal skills, leadership, time management, philosophy etc. Take the time to learn them and improve them. Your staff *will* notice even incremental improvements.
- When you’re with a bunch of people in a similar position, try not to hark back to the olden days – compare notes on what’s working for them and you’ll get loads of pointers on things you want, and don’t want, to do.
- This is important – if you ask your staff what’s going wrong early enough, they will tell you nicely. If you pretend it’s all going swimmingly you’ll only find out when they either all leave, have screaming matches at you, or go to your boss to say you’re shit. Keep reviewing what they need you to be doing in this symbiotic relationship.
- If things aren’t working, change them. If you mess something up, apologise. Try things out – test your management as rigorously as you would a bit of software and you’ll reap great rewards.
- And if you behave like a mean-spirited selfish argumentative arse who turns up late for work, don’t expect to have a lovely cooperative punctual team...
So where does this leave us?
- This starts off hard
- Remember what your job is
- Improve your skills one day at a time
- One day, you’ll stop missing your old job
- Remember this is hard now, but it does get better.
- Focus on the four key tasks of your job, and apply your wisdom, knowledge and empathy to the task to the best of your abilities.
- Take each skill in turn and make progress where you can, trying to be a bit better manager each day.
- And one day, you’ll look at your team of developers, writers, sysadmins and designers, all working together in beautiful harmony in a way they never could before and think “I did that”. And chances are that they, and your boss, know that too.
- Willam H. Ury - Getting to yes
- Susan Jeffers - Feel the fear and do it anyway
- Blanchard & Johnson - The one minute manager
- Andy Law - Experiment at Work
- Eddie Obeng - The Project Manager’s Secret Handbook
- Mark Forster - Get everything done and still have time to play
- Mark Forster - Make your dreams come true
- Andrew Rawnsley - Servants of the People
- Neal Stephenson - Cryptonomicon - the Epiphyte strand.
- Paul Glen - Leading Geeks