On managing both sides of the bridge

I sometimes see the Project Manager as the bridge between the development team and the relationship managers (and other folks higher up in the ladder).

I have never seen the bridge “do any work” in the way that work is perceived by humans. Work, in the IT parlance, consists of writing code, testing, writing specifications, providing customer support and so forth. The IT manager hardly ever does any of these.

While the developers’ “work” consists of all the above, the relationship managers have their own alibi: customer presentations, proposals for new customers, marketing, customer management, funding for projects and so forth. 

It seems that while every one is busy, the bridge is just sitting there, doing nothing. That, in short, is the project manager for you.

Until you start thinking about how much “work” would get done if the bridge was not there. What would be the point of the developers and the relationship managers being busy with their “work” if there was no way to connect these two to form a coherent deliverable to the customer !

From my seat in the project manager’s chair, I see two conflicting world views, two worlds with a chasm neither wants to cross on their own. The developers are foreever gloating about their “work” being the cornerstone of the success with the customer. (“What would our relationship manager tell the customer if we refused to code !”) The relationship managers have their gloating specialities (“who would these developers work for if we did not slog to get that new business to our company !”)

From my seat, I see the two worlds refusing to see eye-to-eye (cliche check for the day !)

The project manager’s skills are adequately documented in the PRINCE2 and PMI websites. It is not for me to regurtitate those here.

But beyond the Earned Values and Gantt charts, there is a job description that is begging to be let out of the bag. That is the description of the negotiator, the reconciliator, the value deliverer. I would not mind if we rename the project manager’s role description with any one of the above.

To the relationship manager (and beyond), the project manager has to prove that he is in control of the development team. That he can deliver value out of the proletariat, the “silly people” who do not understand the “complex world of customer negotiations”. The project manager has to prove that he is getting the best possible out of the team of “misdirected kids”. He has to be there to explain every transgression of the “masses”.I have relationship managers threaten me with dire consequences if I did not “take care” of so-and-so guy from my team as if I was the father of an errant kid ! Trust me, every mistake that anyone from your team ever makes (past, present or future) will be held up against you in ways you never thought possible ! And I am not exaggerating.

To the developers, the project manager has to prove that he has enough influence in the organization to get them the rewards they “so deserve”. Developers have given me the most terrible guilt I have ever felt after their requests to the top management were turned down. Keep this in mind: if someone from your team asks you to forward a request on their behalf to the management steps-in-the-ladder above you and that request is denied by some guy at the top, the guy in your team will always privately believe – no matter your pleadings to the contrary – that you had recommended that the request be turned down. At the very best, they will believe that you did not push that request hard enough with the top guys. But, you are lucky if they believe that and leave it at that. The bigger threat is if your team starts believing that you just don’t have enough influence with the top management to get things done for them. That is when they start by-passing you. And that is when things start breaking down and that is when you should quietly step down.

And you thought the project manager had nothing to do all day !

I personally believe that project managers are capitalist and union leader rolled into one – like those 2-in-1s that were so popular in the 90s.The project manager is expected to understand the pressures that both sides of the bridge face. He is expected to relate equally to both the sides of the bridge plus he has to manage such that each side thinks he is batting for them. Without further lecture, some tips based on my own humble experience:

1) Talk the language: Learn the language spoken on both sides of the bridge. And I am not just referring to technical and management jargon such as webservices, repeat business, JSF, realizations etc. I am referring to the unique way developers refer to so-and-so manager and so-and-so customer. I am referring to the way relationship managers talk about business, proposals, sales figures etc.

2) Take a coffee break: I have found this useful after everything else failed. I have learnt to accompany my team when they went out for their coffee breaks. It gave me a pulse of what people were thinking. At first, they were careful not to spill the beans in front of me. But slowly, they started ignoring me and opening up. Not only did I feel a part of their posse, I also really understood why they did or felt what they did. I used the same coffee break idea on my supervisors and got a feel for their pressures.

3) Listen: This is so simple that it is easy to neglect it. When people come to you with a problem or a request, do not clog your mind with thoughts on how to respond – instead, just listen. More often than not, I have realized that when you let people talk without interruption, it gives them an outlet. Once they have said their piece, they feel lighter. Most often, what looks like a request (coming from your team) or a demand (coming from your boss) is just a pent-up frustration. They need to feel that someone is ready to listen to their side. If they corner you for a response, tell them you will need some time to think about it.

4) Take the emotion out of the discussion: Like no.3 above, this one involves a lot of listening. Add to that, some self-control. I have noticed that when someone brings something emotional to the table (such as a promotion, a customer escalation etc), as long as I do not react on the spot, things seem to work out fine. Once I let slip an emotional response, things start falling apart. Like I said above, sometimes it is just a matter of finding someone to listen. As a project manager, you have to set aside your own frustrations, emotions. When someone is having an emotional outburst in front of you, imagine that you are a journalist. You are taking notes so you can report the conversation verbatim in a newspaper article. Once it is done, tell the other person that you have understood that they have such-and-such grievance and they would like such-and-such action to be taken by so-and-so. Tell them you will get back to them. Never, I repeat, never make a decision on the spot. They are emotional, you are on the pot, things are on the boil. Your decision will only aggravate the situation.

 5) Be a chameleon but do not bad-mouth: I will admit that I am guilty of some of this. As a project manager, you have to maintain the perfect balance of changing colors every time you talk to one of the sides without bad-mouthing the other side. When talking to your manager, tell them you understand the pain of working with people who do not understand the business, but do not go ahead and say that so-and-so developer is no good. Repeat with developers: while you are empathizing with them about how management never understands the pressures of development, try not to pick  on a manager. I know, once you are in the flow, it is terribly difficult to control the urge to criticize people. (In transactional analysis, Dr Berne describes a game called “Isn’t it awful !” where players take turns in describing how pathetic a situation is without either trying to fix the problem at hand. The game is all about escaping responsibility. Check out Dr Berne’s excellent book  Games People Play )

I do not  know if you still believe project managers have nothing to do all day…maybe they do not. But I believe they are a critical hinge in the organization.

Do not agree ? Sigh !

On communicating in an organization

This is the beginning of the new financial year and every particle in the organization is abuzz with rumours. Of all kinds.
People are whispering about pay-cuts, lay-offs, teams getting dissolved, re-organizations, people being put on the bench (which is a pre-cursor to a lay-off) etc

Why is that ?
In Michael Lopp’s entertaining book Managing Humans, he talks about rumours.

We want to know what’s going on, and when we don’t, we’re likely to make stuff up using whatever facts are available to give the impression that we do. When you add opinions and biases to this information-creation process, you end up with a steady flow of compelling fiction crossing your desk.

So, there. The question is how do organizations quench this thirst for information? Add to this the fact that this lack of information brews insecurity amongst the people, and you understand the criticality of the situation.
A lot of times, unfortunately, executives do not care enough to keep the information flowing. It is frustrating for an employee to hear about impending pay-cuts and lay-offs from the CEO’s statement to the media. He is asking: “why couldn’t the moron just tell us before he went on and told the whole world ?”
It is a reasonable rant. However, for some vague reason, executives just don’t get it.
Most of the times, internal memos to the employees talk about “hard times” and “our ability as an organization to succeed when the odds are against us”. All this while the press releases are talking about cost-cutting and “unfortunate” lay-offs. Employees are a part of the organization and they deserve to be atleast given more information than is given to the media !

One of the challenges I have faced as a manager is information gathering and spreading. There are always questions about confidentiality, lack of information, people’ reactions to information, credibility of the information etc.
How much of the latest news can I share with my people ? How sure am I about the truth of the information I have just collected ? How will my team react when I give them the information ? Will they stop working ? Will it dampen their spirits to the extent of screwing up our next deliverable to the customer ?
These questions are hard, yes. But I have realized that hiding the truth is even more dangerous. Especially when people have alternative ways of digging it out. Even in large organizations, people have ears to the heart of the organization. These are the days when organizations have their own corporate versions of twitter, Yahoo IM, del.icio.us, blogs etc. Once your team starts digging out information without your help, you become redundant. We all know what happens with redundant managers, don’t we !
The next big problem is the accuracy of the information you are about to share. For instance, I have a member in my team who is looking to grab that new assignment overseas. I have a tip-off that the senior management has approved his travel and have given him the go-ahead. Now, before I gleefully share this bit with the team-member, I better double and triple check the accuracy of this tip-off and make sure the management is focussed on taking this through. Far too many times, I have seen the management turn the back on its own decisions when the heat was turned up a little. On the other hand, however, if I wait too long and the team-member gets this info from someone else, how will that impact my credibility ?

These questions are tough to handle. Manager’s get to make a lot of such calls everyday. And most of these do not involve bar graphs and Gantt Charts.

On Delegation

Delegation for managers

Though my lessons come from an IT background, I have a strong belief that these hold good in most fields of work. We are moving towards a workforce that is increasingly specialized. 10 years ago, you would have had a developer who was capable of design, development and testing of code. Today, you wouldn’t dream of starting a project without a specialized design team, a focussed testing team etc. To imagine that a single manager would be able to manage and run each of these sub-groups in a project team is a bit of a stretch. A lot of sub-ordinate roles have come up to assist project managers in this new world. Today, we have test managers, tech leads, lead architects etc.It is fashionable to call these people techno-functional (though I hardly understand what that term means !). At the core, each of these roles is formed by the manager delegating part of his authority to someone from each of the specialized teams. e.g. you could say that the tech lead is someone from the development team who has been delegated management responsbility of the development activities by the project manager.

So how do you, as a manager, delegate work to sub-ordinates ? Like I said earlier, I have tried to capture my perceptions here as an IT project manager. I believe that these perceptions fit into other fields of work as well. So, here goes:

Why do managers want to delegate:

When I took over my first project as a manager, I had a thrill run through my body! I was the boss, after spending years being a sub-ordinate. But with time came the realization that I was responsible for the actions of others. If someone from my team made a mistake, or behaved unprofessionally, I was asked to answer for that. That is when I understood why managers want to make sure their sub-ordinates do not stray from the manager’s instructions. Every mistake a sub-ordinate makes adds up on the list of the boss. So, why would a manager want to give away some of his authority to a sub-ordinate ?

1) Things get too technical, managers do not have specific knowhow about the task at hand:

It happened when one of the tasks on my project was too technical for me. Though I was reading up on the technology, it just wasn’t enough to keep up with the task. I had to allow someone from my team to take over. Big as my ego is, I managed to allow someone else to be boss till the task was done.

This happens in all fields. In the movies, the director delegates the shooting of action scenes to an action director. He delegates the music scoring to the music director. Those are not his areas, and it is easier for someone else to take over.

2) Too little time to run after everything:

This could sometimes become an excuse for being lazy. But, this is more sensible than it sounds. For example, in one project, we had multiple activities running together: development of new code, testing of developed code, production support for customers, capturing requirements for the next release etc. There was no way I would have managed to give each activity its due attention. I had to delegate. More suitable examples for this come from the construction business where the top manager will never have the time to devote to all the things happening at the construction site. Flooring at some levels, concreting at others, painting for newly developed walls, approvals for the government authorities, plumbing arrangements….the list is endless. Even though the top manager would have the knowhow to handle each task, he would be simply over-whelmed if he chased up each activity on his own.

3) Too lazy to handle responsibilities:

To be honest, this is the single biggest reason most managers delegate. I saw this happening with myself. In one of my projects, we had customer calls scheduled late into the evening since the customers were located in UK. After the first few days, I was sick of waiting for the calls everyday. So, I took advantage of my authority as a manager and …delegated. I realize now that it violated a few of the most vital rules of delegation (which I will explain a little later).

It is a general perception that the more authority a person is given, the lazier he becomes. While this is not always true, it is not always wrong either.

4) Scared of handling tough situations:

Again, a personal example to illustrate this: We were asked to attend a weekly meeting to report status to top management. When the project started getting into delays (not always the team’s fault), we were asked more and more questions. After sometime I realized that whenever some questions were expected in those meetings, I would find an excuse to delegate someone from my team to attend these meetings on my behalf. When I realized this, it shook my ego like nothing before. I took great pains to fix this situation from thereon.

Most managers do not take the effort to avoid such situations. In my favourite sport, cricket, I have set a benchmark to identify strong captains. When the team is under the pump, I have noticed that some captains will push themselves down the order, or take themselves out of the bowling attack. These are managers who are too scared to face difficult situations and they use their power to delegate this task to others.

5) Bored of doing something:

There have been countless instances from my own career where I have delegated routine chores to people who did not have the choice to say no. Updating weekly status reports, documenting minutes of meeting, setting up calls…all in the name of giving someone the chance to learn about project management ! Some people have not appreciated this.

There is nothing wrong in this per se. It is important that the manager gets the time to devote to more strategic activities. But that cannot always be done at the expense of someone else.

Why do sub-ordinates want to take up delegated responsibilities ?

I read somewhere that to become a manager, you have to start behaving like one. The easiest way of taking over your boss’ position is to start doing his work. I did not always follow this (for fear of ending up with too much work on my plate — I have never liked work too much !). But I have seen many an ambitious bloke follow this and readily fall victim to my delegating ways !

1) Want to impress the boss:

Some folks have the idea that if you offer to help out the boss with his work (no matter what that work is) you will be rewarded, you will become his blue-eyed boy. This works with some bosses, doesn’t with others. But in either case, it gives the boss a good feeling that there is someone around to share his workload without asking for a share in his pay-packet !

2) Want to learn new things:

Believe it or not, I do have a career-plan. So, I am not surprised that there are millions of others who have one too. Some people want to learn the art (or is it science ?) of management. They believe that the best way to learn that is to do the work that your boss does. So, they offer to help their boss with his work. This is a noble aim. The problem with this (for the boss) is that these ambitious blokes do not take anything that the boss throws at them. They are choosy about the kind of work they will help with. This can become an annoyance if not handled properly. e.g. I had this one person in my team who wanted to help but would never show up when I asked him to do mundane work. If there was a planning session or a client meeting, however, he would be running to join in !

3) They feel they are the best people for the job:

This is the best way for the whole delegation thing to work out. I have had instances from my projects where one of my team members has just grabbed the work from my hand because he felt he was the best person to handle this job. I felt great handing over to him because there was conviction in his voice and purity in his intentions.

Sparks fly when the right person puts his hand up for the job and does it with gusto. It is important for the manager to recognize the fire in the eyes (and the belly) in the right person. If this is not recognized early, the moment may pass and an opportunity to identify a new leader would be gone for ever.

4) Want to take more responsibilities:

This is a variation on the 3rd point (above). There have been people in my projects who were extremely ambitious and extremely capable. I have realized that handing over the reins to such people was the best thing to do. I have also realized that this is the best way for any organization to groom future leaders. Organizations (and managers, on the behalf of organizations) need to recognize and reward ambition suitably.

Delegation ground rules:

Delegation is not always easy and not always the right thing to do. So, how do we ensure this is done correctly and efficiently ?

1) You can delegate authority, not responsibility:

A rule that I learnt from one of the best bosses I ever had. A manager has two things in his pocket: responsibility and authority. Organizations need to ensure that the responsbility-authority balance is right at each level in the work force to ensure people can do their job competently. However, when managers delegate, it is only authority that they can delegate. The manager cannot delegate responsibility. It is just not acceptable.

In the example that I gave earlier where I was trying to find excuses to get out of meetings, I was delegating the responsibility (accountability) to a sub-ordinate. This is not acceptable since this responsbility is inseperable from my role as the manager. Some people have gone to the extent of saying that managers earn their salary purely on the accountability they are expected to show. The higher the responsbility, the heavier the pay-packet. If a manager wants to get rid of his responsibilities, it is time for the organization to get rid of him too.

2) Do not vanish after delegation:

I observed this both as a manager and as a sub-ordinate. Managers delegate work and then they leave the poor guy all alone. When people take up responsibility that does not come as a default part of their job description, they need time to learn, someone to answer their questions, to teach and guide them and they need to luxury of making a few mistakes. When the boss vanishes after delegating, all the above luxuries vanish too.

As a manager, when you delegate, make sure you are around to answer questions and generally help out. But, more important than anything else, make sure you are around to step in when there are problems. Make your team-mate feel secure in the knowledge that he is allowed a few mistakes. This will help both of you in the long run.

3) Judge well before you delegate:

Not every team-member is ready to take up responsibility. Personally, I have followed the general rule that I will not delegate unless someone asks for additional work. Even then, I have been careful to ensure I made the right choice of person and task. This person-task mapping is extremely important. Not everyone can do everything. People have their specialities and their preferences. Also, some people are more sensitive to failure than others. Ensure you pick the right person for the right job at the right time.

e.g. I once delegated production support management work to a team-member just 1 day before the application went into production. The result was that I had to step in on the first day of production support. I had failed to give the person time to understand his new role. I had made the right choice of person and task but failed at the important act of timing !

4) Delegation should add value:

When managers delegate, the most important drivers are usually laziness (on the manager’s part) or eagerness to impress (on the part of the team-member). These are the wrong reasons for delegation. When these are the drivers for delegation the result is that neither the manager, nor the team-member gains in the long run.

Delegation was introduced into the organization structure primarily as a grooming tool. It should be used to that end (as much as possible). Talk to your team and find out what their hopes and aspirations are. Ensure that you find the right tasks for each of them and make sure the delegated tasks add value to their bigger career plans. Find a way to measure if this is working in the right direction. The best way to measure is to have regular chats with the team to understand what they feel about the tasks delegated to them. Do they find them fulfilling ? Are they learning something ? Are these tasks adding value to their careers ? etc

As a manager, my biggest satisfaction has come from the fact that I have given the organization leaders to replace me. Someone once told me that the best way to go up in the organization is to make sure that your boss goes up too. I will add to that by saying that the best way to get credit as a leader in the organization is to help create leaders around you.

I will hope that this has helped at some level. Please do let me know your comments.