The middle manager. The useless fat of any bloated organization. They delegate all their work to other people, and then they wander around aimlessy, doing nothing at all expect worry about what happens if the delegated work doesn’t get done in time.
Being useless fat can be both rewarding and fun, but most of the time it is a difficult job. Even so, it must be done. After all, stuff doesn’t get delegated by itself..
It’s an interesting and not entirely new question. What to do with middle management in a company that is agile, stuffed with self organizing teams that in turn are made up of super-cool and smart people that don’t really care very much for authority figures who try to tell them what to do. Do we really need them around?
In an “agile organization” (whatever that is), stuff still needs delegating. But perhaps you are delegating goals and projects, instead of tasks. Less time is spent reporting against imaginary project plans, more time is spent actually creating value for the customer. Sharing information, explaining goals. Discussing possible solutions. Developing said solutions, showing them to the customer early and often.
As an agile or lean manager, I’m not really the boss of someone else. I am simply responsible for other parts of the value delivering process. I am also responsible for optimizing the process itself. I also try to inspire everyone else to optimize their part of the process, whenever that is possible without hurting the process as a whole.
My job is to protect tech people from nosy sales people, help sales people understand difficult tech people, explain to owners how a little money now isn’t always better than a lot of money later, and that more quality actually equals less cost in the long run. If all of the above goes well, the result is surprisingly often that we deliver valuable and useful software to customers who don’t always know what they need, but always know where it hurts.
Basically it is understanding, sharing and aligning goals and mindsets. And that is a really fancy way of saying that you need to talk a lot. I don’t really like talking to people very much, so I guess that explains why I spend half the time worrying instead.
It may not be very effective, but at least worried people look busy. And looking busy is important when you are useless fat.
I’ve been a manager for several years now. A leader? That, I’m still working on.
Leading is difficult stuff. Managing, I’m actually quite good at. Leading people, now that’s a totally different ball game. There are all sorts of mushy, feely stuff involved. And when I said it was a different ball game, I did that because I’ve heard there’s coaching involved. It’s not enough to find great people, apparently you need to help them get even better. This isn’t going to end well.
As I mentioned recently, I just want us to not suck. Surely people should be able to do that all by themselves. No? So now I have to pretend to like people (I’m a hopeless introvert that would probably be better off living in a cave on the top of some remote mountain) and even try not to hurt their feelings when I tell them to suck it up and.. well, not suck.
Luckily, I read a lot of books (good cave activity). The other day I found one that reminded me that even as a leader, especially as a leader, you’ve got to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. You just got to tell them nicely.
So when I tell people I don’t want them to suck, I try to do so nicely. I start by asking them about their day. And then I tell them please don’t suck.
Seriously, I tell people when I’m not happy about something, but I try my best to assume good intent. If someone did something wrong, they probably didn’t mean to. And if someone did something wrong, at least they’re doing something. And they’ll most likely do it different next time around. So by doing the wrong stuff, they’re actually improving. Hey, that’s what I was supposed to help them with, wasn’t it?
Maybe I can become a leader, after all?
Rest assured that on those rare occasions I do come across as a leader, I will be dead set on coming across as a good one. There are so many bad bosses out there, I’m not sure there are even room for more.
Even though I still find it challenging to improve others, I work hard on improving myself. In one year, I will be a better leader than I am today. In three years I will be even better. In five, the people who work for me will go “Hey, that shit you just said actually made sense!” when I tell them stuff.
Until then, I guess when I’m not managing, I’ll be in my cave. Reading. Probably about self managing teams and silly stuff like that. I mean, if the guys managed themselves, what on earth would I do?