Friday, 9 February 2007

The Three Aspects of Management

Found myself explaining for the third time in a day yesterday about the three different aspects of management that I deal with in my work in Exoweb. Thought it best to blog about them, to put down in writing what I have had to repeat multiple times last week.

These are my personal opinions/divisions of course and have no grounding in scientific research. They are merely based on personal experience. However, all managers in Exoweb perform at least one aspect and some can do all three.

In my daily work, the three aspects I end up spending my management time on are:

  1. Tech Management
  2. Project Management
  3. Human Resource Management

Technical Management

This deals with the actual work that needs doing and varies by department. It is difficult, if not impossible, to do this type of management without solid knowledge and experience in doing this task yourself. e.g. An Accounting manager must understand and be able to balance his own books before attempting to supervise a team. Likewise a senior software designer/architect needs to solidly understand software (object oriented or otherwise) design patterns and the abilities/limitations of the technologies used to be effective.

This aspect of management typically involves setting and maintaining general technical quality in a team. Properly done, this also involves mentoring and training to ensure that team members are constantly improving and requiring less and less management. This is not that frequently done in practice though.

This aspect appears to require the least social skills of the three.

Project Management

To me this has two separate components - client management and juggling tasks and resources to complete the project in time. In theory, they could be handled by different people but in practice this is so inefficient that it is not practical.

Client management requires the most communication skills of the two as it involves managing client expectations, negotiating resources and dealing with the inevitable problems that arise. Strong social skills are especially useful with the class of clients that requires you to wine and dine them.

The second component requires mostly a logical mind to figure out how to achieve the maximum value for the client given available resources. This requires not just understanding client priorities but also the best way to utilize the team to achieve these priorities. e.g. Can the manager arrange the tasks so that dependencies between them are minimized and the team functions like a well oiled machine? Or will tasks clash, resulting in periods of inactivity followed by frantic crunch periods? What are the deadlines coming up and can the team make them?

Some understanding of how the work is done is useful but not to the depth of the tech manager. We have a few project managers that lack a technical background but are still quite capable of carrying out this component of management. Strangely enough, gamers who enjoy strategy or RPG games often do well at this. Ultimately, they involve the same skills - maximizing results by carefully allocating scarce resources.

Human Resource Management

This is often the most neglected aspect of management - the understanding, combination, development and motivation of team members. It also cannot be delegated to the HR department. Both First Break All The Rules and Peopleware are full of studies that show it is the first line manager that has the largest impact on employee morale, productivity and development. All the HR processes and motivational posters in the world will achieve nothing if the immediate manager of a team member sucks at this.

It is easy to neglect this because it this type of management is a long term investment and the symptoms of neglect take so long to show up. Morale is rarely measured and there are many possible reasons for why productivity is suffering. It is easy to blame/focus on something else, especially when there are so many other tasks that obviously need doing. When clients are screaming about late projects, it is very hard to invest in long-term training, even when it is clear that the lack of certain skills among team members is the reason why projects are late.

In my career, the best managers I remember - the ones I was happiest and most productive working for - were the ones that knew exactly how to motivate the team. They may have been merely competent at the other aspects (in some cases minimally competent) but they were far superior to their peers in understanding what made their people tick. They knew how to combine people together so their strengths built on each other and their shortcomings were compensated for by other team members or processes. Working for them was a joy and it was amazing what a gelled team could achieve. It could easily multiply the productivity of a team.

Doing this is hard, especially for the stereotypically anti-social techie. It requires more than just social skills. The manager also needs to really understand the unique strengths and characteristics of each team member. Many company processes/managers treat team members as interchangeable machines that perform the same as each other, rather than the unique individuals they are, with individual needs. They are forced to do this either because they cannot recognize the individuality of their people or are unable to find managers who can manage in this way. This results in work processes and practices designed for the lowest common denominator - meant to protect us from our weaknesses. How much more enriching would it be to work in a place that recognized and allowed us to utilize our strengths and achieve our fullest potential?

Final Thoughts

There are extremely few people who can do all three roles well. Even finding people who can do two (e.g. Tech and Project Management) roles very well is very hard. We are experimenting within Exoweb with having specialists in each of the three roles. Although not nearly as efficient as having all the roles combined in one person (communication overhead is much higher) it has been proven to work with the first two roles. The jury is still out on the third role - we don't know for sure if it can be done by someone who isn't already doing at least one of the other roles. It is also such a sensitive function that we are reluctant to experiment too much with it.

There are so many different ways to manage and we're only beginning to figure out what works for Exoweb's culture and people. Ultimately though, I would stick to the philosophy best summarized in this quote: "that's what management is - it's not about how much you can do yourself. It's about how much you can help others do"

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