What are managers focusing on ?
One of my biggest pet peeves over the years has been that managers in most organizations do not spend their time on the right things. Managers swing between micro-management and too little engagement. This is true for most mid-level managers in companies but is especially true for project managers.
This happens because the role of the manager is not as well-defined as it should be. When someone is made a manager, they are just told that they now have additional responsibilities. Sometimes this additional responsibility comes with additional authority, but it almost never comes with a “playbook”. Even in organizations where there is a playbook for each role, most management work is part of the “company culture” and most managers play it by the ear.
So what do managers usually spend their time on ?
For some unfathomable reason, it is believed by senior leadership that just because you manage a team, you should be the one collecting data about the team in a hundred different spreadsheets. There is a spreadsheet for number of hours each team-mate worked, there is one for the number of years of experience for each team-mate, there is even one to keep track of vacations ! This does not include the weekly spreadsheets for who forgot to charge their timesheets, whose code has the most number of defects, who worked on DB2 in the past 5 years…etc. And this is just team-mate related data. Project Managers are also expected to keep track of defect density, defect status (put that in a spreadsheet, will you ?), number of lines of code, number of test cases, number of requirements…and so on
Why this is wrong: Collecting data is a task that could be automated…very easily. All it requires is a good organizational database. Once you key in all the data, everything should just flow from there. Each team-mate can periodically update their data in the database and the required reports should be generated at the press of a button.
This is probably a sister of “collecting data” above. This could be weekly status reports, steering committee decks, financial reports and so on. Depending on the size of the project/team, there could easily be two/three reports that need to be created every week.
Why this is wrong: Before I say why this is wrong, I will admit that there is some value in the manager participating in the report creation process. It allows the manager to stay in touch with some of the details that could otherwise be missed. The biggest value would be in the manager being able to control the messages being sent out to the recipients of the report. Having said that, there are far better ways to control the message. Most report creation steps could be delegated to team-mates and they could take turns so no one person has to do it every time.
I can understand that the manager needs to chair meetings with clients/senior leadership. What I cannot understand is why the manager needs to chair every team-meeting – including the internal status meetings or an internal meeting to discuss a technical issue in the project.
Why this is wrong: The manager running the show in every meeting is not only a humongous waste of the manager’s time, it also takes away opportunities for other team-mates to contribute. A team meeting requires that every team-mate participate to some extent. When the manager runs the meeting, there is a tendency for the manager to talk more and listen less. This is a waste of everybody’s time.
Most managers in the IT industry can never resist the temptation of getting deeply involved in technical discussions. They will spend hours with their developers trying to understand the problem…and then they will come up with a solution.
Why this is wrong: Any team that is working with a considerable technological complexity needs to have a dedicated tech lead or an architect. It is usually the job of that person to work on technical challenges. That said, the biggest problem here is not even the fact that the wrong person is doing the job — the biggest problem here is that some managers tend to come up with a solution and get attached to that. From there on, it becomes an ego trip.
In large organizations, there is nothing like bureaucracy to kill productivity and drain energy from people. There are a thousand steps, reviews, approvals etc from the time a project begins to the time it is completed. Every step involves creation of detailed documentation which then needs to be approved by 20 different people. As it happens, managers tend to spend the most time on these steps.
Why this is wrong: While over-governance itself is wrong, what is worse is that most managers are unable to delegate some of this work. Governance is probably the only place in a project where the work could be delegated upwards as well. Most managers never take this opportunity.
So, what is the best use of a manager’s time ?
Each project and each team has a special purpose … at least that is what is hoped for in a well-aligned organization. It is the manager’s duty to understand what that purpose is and communicate it to his team … at every possible opportunity. The manager needs to make sure that nothing the team does takes it away from its intended purpose. When the team’s purpose or the project’s purpose in the organization is not clear, it is the manager’s duty to ask why not.
It is the duty of the manager to build relationships with clients and senior leadership, set expectations, keep them in the loop etc. Strong relationships allows the manager to deliver bad news easily. It also allows the manager to negotiate for more money, more resources…anything the team might need to get the job done. Without strong relationships, projects could be hell.
Managers always say during the annual review period that they never had time to talk to their team. Talking to the team is not just about the work the team is doing. Talking to people about their goals and aspirations, allowing them to vent their frustrations periodically, giving pointers on their careers — all this keeps people engaged and focused on their work.
Managers should always be on the lookout for things that might go wrong. While some of this could be delegated, it is imperative that the manager use their judgement in terms of which risk has a bigger probability of occurring and the best way to mitigate it.
This is one responsibility managers stay away from and not necessarily because of the lack of time. Most people are scared of taking decisions that might go wrong. Most people hate to put their neck on the line….that is why most people are not cut out to be managers.
Mid-level managers are the muscle of any organization. While they have minimal inputs on what an organization should do (strategy), they are critical to getting it done (tactics). Also, today’s mid-level managers are tomorrow’s senior execs.
Unfortunately, most organizations treat their mid-level managers (and project managers) as glorified clerks. Those managers who fight that culture stand out….so should you.