Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Management work: Strategy and Planning?

In my list of management work last week I left what some people will think of as a major omission: strategy and planning.

There is a school of thought that says that managers spend, or at least should spend, a lot of their time engaged in thinking big thoughts, having big discussions, creating company and product strategy. Sure thats why they need those big offices? Where else can they think deep and plan?

This school of thought would acknowledge that not all managers create strategy but since all managers think big thoughts those that don’t spend their time creating strategy are planning. Specifically they are planning how to implement the strategy set by more senior managers who do set strategy.

And since managers spend so much time planning they must also spend a lot of time communicating those plans - communicating downward that is. How else can you roll-out a strategy? How else do you implement a plan?

This school of thought is particularly powerful with people who aspire to be managers, people who want to be managers so they can think big thoughts, so they can step back and play a small part in the running of the world. Those who are fans of Michael Porter’s work on Strategy often subscribe, Porter sees strategy as conscious, inherently a top-down activity.

For those who hold this view is also follows that managers need authority: authority to decide the strategy, authority to tell others the strategy, authority to plan and authority to tell others to implement the plan they just made.

So why did I omit this important, and time consuming, aspect of management work?

I omitted it because this view of management is fantasy. It doesn’t exist.

Managers don’t spend their time planning and even fewer spend their time strategising. Sure many managers say they want to do this but very few ever find time. Thats why they feel compelled to create “offsite days” to plan and create strategy because day to day they are caught up in firefighting.

If you don’t believe me do and read the work of Henry Mintzberg, specifically read his book Managing, or the short version of the same book, Simply Managing. In these books he details his findings from following actual managers around and looking at what they do. He find they do very little planning and strategy.

Which is hardly surprising because in his earlier book Mintzberg demolished the idea of strategic planning: The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning.

For software developers the story this book tells is oddly familiar, it starts with the idea that a strategic objective can be decided, that having decided the objective people (managers) can rationally decide what needs to be done to achieve the objective. They can then rationally allocate resources. The resources can then move them towards the objective. Sound familiar?

While Mintzberg agrees that organizations can have strategic objectives, and may even put in place plans to achieve them he shows that achieving the objectives is far from a rational planned activity. And, perhaps more important, strategy is not just a forward looking process (“We want to be the world leader in widgets!”) but an iterative process (“How can we increase our widget sales today?”) and backward looking, sense making (“Hay, our widgets are selling well, what did we do?”).

Most management work is far from planning and strategy creation. Most managers spend their days on administration, on working out problems, on applying their knowledge of a problem - a domain, solutions, history - to the problems they face today.

And if managers are spending their time engaged in strategy, planning and deep thinking then it follows that there is a lot less for them to communicate. And since the plans don’t exist there are no plans to deploy and no need for authority to order people implement plans.

Mintzberg also demolishes the idea that manager work hierarchically, that they need authority to do things. He shows how managers work without authority, they cut across hierarchy, and they work with their staff more than they direct their staff. Management is at least as much about persuasion as it is commanding.

Once you start to see managers as co-operative problem solvers they look much more like any other team member. Albeit one with some elevated status.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say: any manager who tries to work purely through authority is a) not going to be popular and b) find it hard to get things done.

Take away strategy formation, planning and roll-out from the work managers do and an awful lot of the power managers supposed have goes too.

In a software development teams an awful lot of this work can be push down to teams and the NCOs that work with the teams. Authority can be distributed to the people who closer to the problems, who need the authority.

Now perhaps it becomes easier to see managers as team members too.

It just so happens that their skills are a little different form other team members, their skills are more in administration, firefighting, working in ambiguous areas with limited knowledge and yes, to some degree organizing.

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