Friday, May 27, 2016

Managers, change and strategy

In response to one of my posts on management Sergey Timanin ‏tweeted:

“the work [of managers includes] steering the organisation in times of change might be the most invisible to tech people and most under appreciated”

I agree completely with Sergey, many of the changes in and around organizations are invisible to those doing the work. Indeed much, if not most, management work is invisible to those outside the management circle. Does that make it worthless?

Programmers often just want to get on with programming, nothing wrong with that. But sometimes there are changes swirling around, left unmanaged these changes have the potential to sow uncertainty, diminish trust and disrupt work.

In my nature of management post I noted that part of the management role is to interfaced the fuzzy, unknown, unpredicted (unpredictable) world to the very predictable world of machines. This is where Sergey’s observation fits in: the world out that is in a constant state of flux, allow too much of that flux into the work environment and well… you won’t get too much work done!

Managers are sometimes described as “Firewalls”. That is, they shield workers from interruptions and uncertainties that will disrupt their work. This can certainly be true.

But, for every programmer who values their manager as a firewall there is another who believes the manager is unnecessarily filtering - perhaps even controlling or hiding - the information which reaches them and that managers should get out the way and let the information flow direct. These people see managers not as Firewalls but as Gatekeepers who (unnecessarily) restrict the flow of information.

Its easy to see how these two points of view can be simultaneously held by two individual programmers about the same manager in the same company at the same time. One man’s protecting is another man’s hiding, the distinction between Firewall and Gatekeeper is subjective. This is where managers require skills and intuition, both to know what information to hide and what to share and how to communicate with different people with different expectations.

Sergey’s tweet also hints at something another responsibility which is often laid at managers door: that of bringing about change. Particularly being about change in the work environment.

Certainly I would see this as part of a managers role but actually, I would see this as part of everyones role. A good manager should encourage the change ideas of others and help them bring about changes they want to see.

While on occasion a manager may need to discourage - or even prohibit a proposed change - managers should have a role to play in bring about change for the better. However change is usually best when it is bottom-up rather than top-down. I would see a managers role more as fanning the flames of positive change and building momentum more than rolling-out a series of changes decided on in closed rooms.

Traditionally management’s role has been seen as one creating change below in order to satisfy the requests from above: top-down change with the manager as the instrument of delivery. Certainly that is sometimes true. Those who subscribe to view that strategy is planning, that strategy is decided at the top by big brains and passed down the organization would subscribe to that view.

But I don’t.

I believe some strategy is certainly decided at the top and “deployed” or “rolled out” down the organization but, actually, much strategy is bottom-up, it is emergent, it is the result of what happens on the ground, learning at the coal-face, and how this information is interpreted higher up.

Strategy is both emergent and in many cases retrospective. That is to say, strategy is a story we tell afterwards to make sense of what happened and to align future actions. In this case manager’s role is as much about telling stories and passing strategy up the hierarchy as down.