Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rules of Thumb

My name is Chip and I've been a manager. I've fallen in and out of management more than once during my career of three decades plus change. All engineers should take a turn in the corner office. You develop your people skills, you learn the business, and you might even discover that a lot of management is surprisingly and satisfying analytical. Or you'll make it that way.

My degrees are in computer science, so when I had to start wearing a tie - purely metaphorically speaking - I knew I needed some formal training. But some of the best stuff I learned about management, and about being a manager, I didn't learn in any class or seminar. Some of it I learned on the job. Some of it from a good mentor or two. Some by observation. And much of it in the school of hard knocks. I also read a hell of a lot.

Here are a few of the things I have learned.

It takes you at least as long to get out of trouble as it took you to get into it.

Say you have a corporate culture that sucks. How long will it take to turn it around? Jack Welch might be right that people's outward behavior can be changed quickly. But just because they are smiling and nodding doesn't mean they trust you as far as they can throw you. Or aren't thinking "up yours" to every point you try to make. If you had poor personnel policies for a couple of years, expect to take at least couple more years before you have eradicated all of their negative effects.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

I once heard a department head complain about a lack of employee loyalty after the company we both worked for had spent the last several years laying off half of its employees. What did she expect? If you treat people with mistrust, expect to not be trusted. If you show disrespect, don't be surprised when you get no respect. If you treat people like idiots, don't expect to be winning any MacArthur grants.

You are not saving money if you have merely moved costs from where they can be measured to where they can't.

The classic case of this is eliminating desktop and laptop computer support to save those precious IT dollars that, let's face it, are just overhead. Like a lot of overhead, it enables your highly paid technical staff to do their jobs. By shifting the simpler support functions to your engineers, you now have a bunch of extremely expensive albeit disgruntled technicians. I've also seen engineers earning six figures doing the kind of clerical work I used to have my administrative assistant do (and who was really good at it) at a fraction of the cost. Keep saving money like this and eventually you'll go bankrupt.

People pretty much act the way they are incented to act.

If your people exhibit some behaviors that are, let's say, contra-indicated, your first step should be to look at your system of incentives. I've written about and given talks on Robert Austin's book Measuring and Managing Performance in Organizations (Dorset House, 1996) in which he writes about how incentive programs drive dysfunction into organizations. Nelson Repenning of MIT has written on fire-fighting in organizations, how rewarding fire-fighting leads to more fires to fight, and if unchecked, leads to a death spiral. Managers try to motivate employees with all sorts of stuff that only can be classified as motherhood and apple pie. Some of it they might even believe themselves. But people have so much on their plates, they can't meet impossible deadlines, come in on tiny budgets, and produce high quality work. It's just impossible. The only way people know what the company really values is by carefully watching who is rewarded for doing what.

If you waste people's time, you are sending them a message that it is okay to be wasteful.

I once worked for a company that estimated the cost of big meetings by multiplying the number of participants by their average fully loaded cost. The division director would actually say "If we gather everyone in the auditorium, that's a $4000 meeting. Is it that important?" Everyone understood that time was money. And because it was wrong to waste time, it was also wrong to waste anything else.

On their deathbed, no one ever said "I wish I'd spent more time at work."

But you might say "I wish I'd done more writing." Or "spent more time with my kids." Or even "spent more time with smart engineers." When I'm racing out the door on my way to work, I always stop and pet the cats. Whatever it is for you, take the time to do it. Keep your priorities straight.

What rules of thumb do you use?

Update (2009-10-26)

People are more important than things.

I'm embarrassed to admit that it took losing some friends my age and my mom in 2006 to drive this home. But given the choice between, say, going out to dinner with colleagues at a conference, and going back to your hotel room to read LOLCats captions, choose the former. Sure, reading LOLCats is good short term entertainment, but connecting with friends and colleagues is the better long term investment of your time.


Anonymous said...

I don't have any rules of thumb since I've never gone to the management dark-side. It's probably inevitable since I'm not a rock-star code slinger.

You should check out the meeting cost calculator (not that the math is painful).

To your point about saving money, Joel talks about The Development Abstraction Layer. It's a great post, my synopsis is that if you're a software shop, development is where the magic happens so let them do their job.

Being on the recipient end of management I guess one thing I could mention that it's important to be likable. If a manager is not a good person they won't get much out of me. It's like in school, when I didn't like a professor I did horrible in the class. It's my problem, I know, but it's the psychology managers deal with I think.

Since I'm handing out the weakly connected links, I recommend Bob Suttons blog. He wrote the 'No Asshole Rule'. Here's a good post about Clueless Assholes in Corporate America.

Anonymous said...

Another rule of thumb for managers:
If you have a talented person in your organization a good manager will find a role where they will fit in: not.

Some talented people have characteristics and habits that are not compatible with your organization. After some effort at finding that out, the best thing you can do is let them go.

Anonymous said...

I tripped over your use of "Front OFfice" for management. I think of the front office as the customer interface, while the head office is management. But I suspect these are not carefully defined terms.

I like your rules of thumb, and have been considering writing a management manual based on not being a sterotype. There are lots of management sterotypes, so it is easy to look at your actions, and see how well they align with known sterotypes. Trying to get minimal correlation would be a good daily check.