Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Manager? Boss? What a way to harsh the mellow AND the buzz.

I am not a particular fan of layer-cake management structures, totem-pole hierarchies, and nit-picking bureaucracies.

When I worked at Wang in the 1980’s, wending your way through the Byzantine processes to get anything done was your life’s work.

We would sometimes make bets with each other on the elapsed time between decided to do something and actually getting it done. I’m not talking about the product development process here. I’m talking about, in those pre-Power Point days, getting a set of 35 mm slides that you could use for client presentations taken care of. Or a data sheet (or function strip – remember those?) for your product. Or even permission to step toe out of the office for business travel (which, in my group – which was under the engineering EVP – was sometimes not granted until 5 p.m. the evening before your trip, which made it pretty darned difficult to set the things up that you wanted to accomplish while you were on the road).

In my experience – and I do know people whose experiences were different than mine – Wang was complete and utter crazy-ville. Personally, I believe that John Chambers (who was at Wang while I was there) became such a success at Cisco because he was smart enough to have learned what not to do during his time at Wang.

Wang aside, I’ve also, on occasion, had the experience of working under managers who did absolutely nothing except go to meetings, get in the way, grab credit, and play endless rounds of CYA and suck-up.

So I understand where the “just say no” to management philosophy might spring from.

Still, it’s pretty clear to me that, once your company gets to a certain size, it may not be possible to get away without having someone make decisions, set priorities, define processes, adjudicate differences, and speak with authority on behalf of the firm.  Not to mention take care of the usual employee-related shit that all managers have to put up with: listening to grievances, dealing with problems, figuring out what to do with underperformers, finding growth opportunities for superstars (which hopefully won’t involve taking your job).

Anyway, I was reminded of this while watching a recent episode of Newsroom, in which anchorman Will McAvoy (played by the wonderful Jeff Daniels) went on a rant about why Occupy Wall Street has been largely ineffective, while the Tea Party has proven to be pretty darned good at getting its way.  Secret Koch money and manipulations aside, the reasons were lack of leadership and lack of clarity of purpose (which, as often as not, is tied to lack of leadership).

Sure, “Will” was talking about political organizations, an about leadership, not necessarily management, but there’s certainly plenty of overlap with companies, as well.

And as those companies grow to a certain size,  they’re no longer going to be able to rely on a leader or two at the top. They’re going to need a couple of management layers.

In any case, there was an article related to this topic in recent WSJ, which focused in part on 37signals.

First, I have to say that I’m amazed that 37signals – originators of open source software framework Ruby on Rails and makers of Basecamp, among other web apps -  has accomplished as much as they have with fewer than 40 employees. So they must be doing plenty right.

And earlier this year that something right involved appointing their only manager:

[Co-Founder Jason] Fried previously oversaw the company's main product, Basecamp, in addition to looking after other products and setting strategy. But he was stretched so thin that key decisions about the project-management software, which serves as a hub for workers to share messages, collaborate on documents and discuss ideas, were sometimes left hanging for weeks or months. (Source: WSJ Online.)

So he tapped Jason Zimdars for the (unwanted) task.

Rather than manage coworkers, he says, "I like to code and design and make things."

I can certainly understand his feelings.

There were plenty of times when I was a manager that I looked back on a meeting-packed day and tried to come up with one concrete thing that I’d done. During my managerial stints – which ranged from managing one person (yay, totem-pole) to managing a team with a couple of dozen members – I made sure that I always reserved some hands-on work for myself. (Obviously easy enough to do when the team was small, harder when there were enough people to pretty much handle all the work-work.)

Disdain for management sometimes seems as common as free snacks among tech startups and other small or young companies founded without layers of supervisors, fancy titles or a corporate ladder to climb. Leaders of these companies, including 37signals, say they are trying to balance the desire to free workers to create and the need for a decision maker to ensure projects run smoothly.

Which is why Mr. Fried passed the decision-making baton to Mr. Zimdars.

The trick for smaller companies, such as 37signals, is making sure decisions get made and tasks get done without evolving into a bureaucracy.

So far, it seems to be working out, but 37signals had a less positive middle management experience a few years back, bringing in someone to oversee customer service. That didn’t work out, so they now operate on a manager-of-the-month basis, taking handling management tasks, while also keeping their day jobs.

This seems like both a good and a bad idea:

"If you are too far away from actually doing the work, you don't really understand the work anymore and what goes into it," says Mr. Fried.

So very, very true.

On the other hand, not everyone’s cut out to be a manager.

Anyway, good luck to 37signals (and Mr. Zimdars).

GitHub is another young tech company grappling with the to-manage-or-not-to-manage question.

"I'm not denying that the work of a middle manager still has to get done," says [co-founder Tom] Preston-Werner, who is also the company's chief executive, a title he says he holds in name only. "But," he adds, "how do you solve that problem in a way that embraces freedom, as opposed to hierarchy?"

At GitHub, they apparently do so by avoiding the word “manager”, and have come up with the term “primarily responsible person (PRP).”

But since GitHub hires smart young things, I’m betting that someone, someday will figure out that a PRP is a manager.

Of course, both 37signals and GitHub try to hire self-managers – don’t we all? – and seem to have been able to do a pretty good job not staffing up with those who are manager-needy.

But, as we all know, everyone is not above average, and, unless you’re Google or Facebook, at some point in time you’re going to end up with people who may not be so spectacularly gifted, passionate, motivated, and altogether excellent.  And even the spectacularly gifted, passionate, motivated, and altogether excellent can come up against something they need help with that their peers may not be able to help with. Or they may just have an occasional bad day.

I hope that these tech companies can keep things as unhierarchical an unbureaucratic as they possibly can.

I wouldn’t wish another Wang Labs on anyone.

Still, research shows middle managers may affect company performance more than anyone else in an organization, even top executives or workers in creative roles.

In reviewing 12 years of data for 395 companies in the videogame industry, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School professor Ethan Mollick found that middle managers were more important to the success of individual products than creative game designers or than other organizational factors, such as firm leadership or HR practices... According to his analysis, middle managers accounted for 22.3% of the performance differences among companies, more than three times as much as the game designers who invent storylines and characters. Dr. Mollick says middle managers play a critical role in "making sure the people at the bottom and the top are getting what they need."

Managers. Bosses. Sure, it can be like having the ‘rents around to harsh your mellow. They can be a total buzz-kill.

Still, having been one, it’s comforting to know that they do have their uses.

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