During last few days I was exposed to few issues that have raised between people of two different roles (profiles?): managers & their subordinates. How unlikely, right? :) Although these were very different cases, that happened between very different people (in different organizations, even in different industries - but all of them somehow related to IT or other, close knowledge-based work), there were few common characteristics between them:

  • managers had a ... ekhm ... "very traditional" understanding of the role they are playing
  • workers were passive - either because they were bewildered / intimidated / resigned or just they didn't give an f-word

The latter deserve some comment of course, but for now let me focus on the first issue: why isn't knowledge workers' management the same as it was for manual workers in XIXth century? What's the quintessence of modern manager role?

Before I dive into the details, just one more remark - the opinions beneath are not my "discoveries" & I don't dare to take credit for them: it's just a synthesis of what I've read somewhere, digested & noted down for my own (and yours, now) convenience.


Leading VS managing

Knowledge workers (like programmers) don't need to be "managed" - they need someone to "lead" them instead. As they are supposed to be the ones who have the needed expertise and enough brain-power to do have their job done (they are the experts, right?), they don't have to be explicitly told what to do next or how to do that. But:

  • they need a clear goal (let me ephasize again: goal, not path)
  • they need a way to evaluate the progress & correctness of direction taken
  • they need to feel that what they do is meaningful & valuable
  • they need continuous support & feedback (not supervision or micromanagement!)

Shield the team

Loosing the focus & switching contexts is extremely deteriorating to both quality & efficiency of work - I don't really think this requires much explanation. A good manager should make sure that the team limits the work in progress & focuses only on the highest priority tasks.

This sometimes may be a bit sensitive topic, because no team's a lone island & each day is packed with interaction with other team members / business people / users / etc. You have to remain reasonable about that:

  • on one hand - you don't want to streamline the communication through yourself
  • on the other hand - you want to avoid the impact of unecessary interuptions & keep proper relationships with "the environment"

Removing the impediments

Yes, manager is a wet work individual: when team members have to create value by materializing their brainpower into various types of artifacts, manager's supposed to remove all the non-domain related obstacles that prevent them from doing so. This means that manager's role is actually a servant one: he's the one who runs around and stretches himself to "clear the foreground", so his workforce doesn't stay idle or restricted with the bottleneck.

This may be tricky, because team members may not be able to identify the impediment properly, their perspective may be too limited or biased - it's manager's responsibiliy to be pro-active in his pursuit to recon & clear the minefield.

"Carry food & water"

Powering up the knowledge work is not only about removing the obstacles, but also about providing the actual fuel & being a catalyst of project work:

  1. organizing resources
  2. dealing with processes, policies & procedures (let's call it "organization inertia" ;)), that are not directly related with knowledge work team's doing
  3. motivating properly (and remember: people may have very different motivations!)
  4. arranging suitable support & knowledge: whatever an organization can provide to aid them in their work


Carrot & stick

Wake up. This doesn't work anymore, both parts:

  • carrot works only short-term & only for extrinsic-motivated people (hence the short-term...) & it may cause abysmal consequences if it's not transparent enough
  • stick works only for worst performers who know that they are leaning against the wall & they will bend just because they have no other option (aka no-one would want them).

Managers co-operation with teams have to be a win-win scenarios: neither side is (and feels!) screwed - they all get what they value high & they feel they can achieve the best results only due to mutual cooperation.

The invisible walls

The most annoying thing about some managers I know is the way they isolate themselves from their subordinates:

  • they never meet the team members in person, just some chosen spokesmen / spokeswomen
  • they don't cooperate with teams on daily basis - they just set up the audiences and they are not that bother when such an audience doesn't happen - which proves exactly how important those meetings are
  • they don't care at all about the information flow - the footmen are there to take orders & they don't need to get confused with information that isn't directly the piece of code they work on right now ...

If you communicate with your team via status report spreadsheets and / or risk logs: you seriously need to think things through again...

Treating them like children

They won't understand me. That's why I'm here where I am & they are in their cubicles. Explaining everything to them would take just too much of my precious time - that's why I just send them orders they have to obey. It's simplier that way.

I know that this decision is the best & they won't come up with anything better. That's why I'll force this decision to save them the trouble. They should be grateful - I've just helped them.

I am responsible for the project, so it's my duty to make sure that everyone's giving 100%. That's why I will daily: make pictures of the openspace at 7pm to find out who's already left; send the policy that everyone's supposed to be at his/her desk every morning at 8:00 sharp; Get rid of the table in social room to make sure they don't spend too much time there; ...

Coach, not a herder

Don't micromanage, lead by example. That's the best way to make sure that people actually learn something from you & your experience is being properly utilized. Let them do their stuff, even if it means that things won't be performed as perfectly as they could have been - make sure that you know what they're doing & they feel that: that's the only way to prove to them that their work is truly meaningful - BECAUSE THEIR BOSS CARES. Not mentioning the "get the ownership" part.

The Router

Don't make yourself the hub of the universe - work out the threshold of responsibility you award your people with:

  • don't force people to communicate through your mailbox
  • don't silo the knowledge to build the importance of yourself in a toxic way (aka keeping your seat safe)
  • stay out of approving / accepting / reviewing every decision they take

Concluding ...

Geez, I've just started writing and words just kept flowing. But here's the right moment to stop, before it transforms into some kind of epic. If you want to read something on the role of modern manager, there are already some proper books you should get acquainted with:

  1. "Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (3rd Edition)" T. DeMarco
  2. "Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders" J. Appelo
  3. "Lessons in Agile Management: On the Road to Kanban" D. Anderson
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