Thursday, November 30, 2006

Extreme Managers

First there was Extreme Programming, now it seems we have Extreme Managers – according to the Financial Times.  The mention of Extreme Programming always made me imagine programmers jumping out of airplanes with keyboards and programming in freefall, the parachute opening and them surfing their keyboards to the ground. 

Extreme Managers – lets call them ‘XM’ – it seems prefer four-in-a-bed sleepless nights.  Manager, their partner and two Blackberries - whether this is one Blackberry each or whether the XM has two Blackberries themselves isn't mentioned in the report.

(In fact, the FT report is a cut down version of a forthcoming report in the Harvard Business Review, which most likely is the cut down version of a more academic report and in all likelihood will be turned into a book by Harvard Business School Press - such is the incisions world of business publishing.)

It seems Extreme Managers like working 12 hour days, 70-hours a week, they manage teams spread through the world, they are always-on, travel a lot but, perhaps surprisingly, actually really like their jobs.  At first sight it looks like a win-win, managers like the work, companies like the results - after all they are only paying for 40 hours a week.

There are obvious problems here: what about their families?  If they actually have any.  And their health?  Such people are creating health problems for themselves and society further down the line.

Then there are the hidden problems: these people can burn themselves out, and by the sounds of it these are people the company comes to depend on.  Second, these people enjoy their jobs but don't want to keep doing and eventually will quit, again the firm looses out.

For managers I think such extreme hours are a red flag: they say "This person can't delegate", they say "This person can't manage their own work load" - they should be prioritising more and cutting away the unnecessary items.

And what about the people who report to these managers, if these guys are always on the run when do they find time to sit down and give feedback to their staff?  When do they have time to help their reports develop? 

Even if they can find the time what kind of message are they sending to their workers?  First they are sending the message "I'm always busy, don't bother me" so they have closed their eyes and ears to problems, staff development and ideas from the shop floor.  Second they are making a very bad role model for those who might one day replace them.  XM's are only making their own lives worse.

The word the report doesn't use but should is "Sustainability."  These jobs are just not sustainable in the long run.  When you look at it this way the interesting thing is sustainability itself.  More and more this is the issue: for the environment, for personal health, for corporate success, for individual projects.  We need to move to a world were, at all levels, we do things in a sustainable way.

Unpaid overtime has always seemed a dangerous thing to me.  If a firm relies on its workers working 50, 60 or 70 hours a week but only pays them for 40 it isn't charging the true cost of its goods.  This is very true with software companies; you see development teams proud of pulling 60-hour weeks to ship a product.  The company may make a profit if it only pays for 40 hours but what if it had to pay the true cost, for 60 hours?  Quite possibly the profit disappears.

In other words, the business model does not work; in the short run you are dependent on the good-will of your workers to give money to your shareholders.  In the longer run this model is not sustainable either.  The replacement costs of the product are far higher than you think, the risks of product development are far higher and your dependency on individual's is far higher.

Over the long run not paying for overtime is not a win-win, its a loose-loose.  Your company shouldn't be proud its workers pull a 60+ hour week, its not commitment, its a sign that you don't understand your business.

1 comment:

  1. The association between XP and "Extreme Managers" is only syntactic. XP aims to bring together (and put to the limit, therefore the adjective "extreme") best practices of software development. One of the most important is called "40 hours a week", also called "sustainable pace". The idea nehind this practice is maintain productivity at top, and even Ford (one century ago) knows that more that 40 hours a week of work actually decreases productivity.

    Beware of wrong associations...

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