Do we need any manager at all?

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“We” doesn’t include the manager set, naturally. After all managers need micro-management.

While closing the previous post, I referred to some of my acquaintances debating the need for the existence of the manager. Many seemed dismissive of the species and wanted it extinct, at least in the s/w development world. Before we go into merits of this view, please indulge me in a small digression I make into pop-psychology.

People who wish to get rid of managers, or like to have nothing whatever to do with them, suffered some traumatic experience in their third year of childhood (employment). They’ve had to weather that marvellous (in the sense of incredulous, NOT beholding a marvel) pointy-haired boss, who makes ignorance sound like a point of view. Having come across this wonder, as the initial disillusionment faded, they developed a deep-seated revulsion for managers in general. Personally I’ve been fortunate, all the chiefs I served under, with only a few fleeting abnormal blighters, knew their stuff and had my respect. However I’ve met and indirectly experienced a lot of unmitigated disasters in the past. My litany of woes would be substantial, as a consultant, one meets more than his fair share of ‘managers’. Truly, at least, in this country, we have a surfeit of this species who combine woolly headed short-sightedness, with self aggrandisement and superficiality. This is becoming something of rant, so I’ll take up a more constructive stance. Also to put the record straight, about one third of the managers, I’ve met, are reasonably knowledgeable, are able to tackle various problems competently and are positive contributors. What of the other two-thirds?

Coming to the Outrageous Q; “Why do we need managers in software development at all?”

Another line to take is that, in creative endeavours like programming, there is no place for a manager, and the teams who do the work must be self-managed. This is a pillar of Scrum. My observation is that much of programming activity in organisations, needs no more creativity than necessitated for the making of a Hollywood movie, or for that matter a Bollywood one. Of course if one doesn’t have much knowledge, and resorts to re-invent the wheel…However, retreating from this cul-de-sac and attempting to answer the original Q, some disinterested analysis is what the doctor ordered.

So we can just have self-management and get rid of managers all together?

Conceivably, yes, if you dance to the music of holacracy. Not even a long shot, if you happen to lap up the pearls cast around by management gurus. For the members of the former party I recommend “Simply managing” by that doyen of management Prof Mintzberg and for the latter Ken Schwaber’s “Enterprise Scrum”, and “Maverick” by Semler. Naturally with my Scrum tinted glasses, I lean towards the latter party but make no mistake, Prof Mintzberg really knows what he is talking about, his articles/books are very edifying. Many people refer to Valve and Netflix as pioneers, but the ideas of self-management were implemented consciously much earlier in Semco Brazil.

Not everything happens in the LOO (private joke for the benefit of my friends).

If by any chance you are in the PMBoK boat  while also in the software dev boat, get out of at least one. One foot in either boat isn’t a good long term plan.

Let’s try to make another stab at understanding. It is more fruitful to separate the noun “manager”, from the verb “management”. Surely all right thinking men (or is that left leaning women) would agree management is needed, even if, for a moment we feel managers themselves are a waste of space. So the Q boils down to: “Can all management be covered by self-management?”. Stop and mull this over. It looks much less of a pragmatic option and more of a very long shot. However, it is also true (from my reasonably wide experience) that we have a lot of worse than useless managers in our industry, so why is that? Incompetent managers hire even more useless managers, who revel in their own power, however undeserved. Living in a bubble, they are unaware of various progressive views of project mangement, software development, culture, human relations, software process etc., instead such managers use a cliche driven, jargon supported approach to management.

[ True story: I’ve witnessed senior managers of a software services company describing the deletion of 10 or so source files in their entirety from the system as refactoring, BTW there was no other adjustment made in the retained code. Then adding injury to insult their teams couldn’t get the software to build. It beggars belief, but gets worse, they tell the client (who incidentally understands modern practices reasonably well) that the problem is “we can’t get back those files as they have been deleted, it’s going to take time to recreate those files ”. These wonders haven’t really met with version control. There is a version control system in place, but they understand it as well as they understand refactoring. I advice my clients to only hire bald males w/o heart conditions and low BP to oversee such vendors]

This is all a particular manifestation of a broader issue which Plato and many of his forefathers have been grappling with: “why is it that human systems result in so much travesty?”. Human organisations, by definition, will be subject to humans. So unless these humans are of unshakable virtue, all pervasive smoothness and light is but a pipe dream. BTW, even self-management is done only by humans. All very encouraging and invigorating, but then we need not lose hope, as self-management is surely a step in the right direction, even as it co-exists with other forms of good management. And for self-management to succeed it must be bounded, with opportunities for course correction combined with visible feedback, in other words an environment which encourages improvement.

In fact the only way forward is more education and transparency; both for the team members and managers. (When was the last time a senior manager spent a week learning something new in depth?) These enable better understanding and slowly induce better behaviour, at least on the average. It is a slow road, the human race progresses all the way dancing a peculiar slow dance, two steps forward and one step back.

In conclusion, we need self-managing teams who are consciously under managed from the outside, while complementary management is done by others (maybe, managers of a particular breed) keeping long term goals in view. This upper management should be continually challenged to provide a lovely work environment where everyone is in the game of doing better still than yesterday.


Interesting Links:

Prof Julian Birkinshaw talking about management  This may come as something of a unsettling surprise to managers in India


Steve Denning on Radical management


Incidentally both the gentlemen are part of the Stoos network(so am I)


Why do we need self-organisation when we have micro-management!?!


Good question!

I’ll try to explain, while avoiding a close coupling with Scrum, though some tangential references may well slip through. Let’s start by considering something which is going to be familar to the gen-X managers: Pseudo-code, a key step in structured software development (or defined s/w dev processes). As the design phase is winding down, the last level of detailing was being filled in by way of pseudo-code. Pseudo-code: a detailed description of steps of a computer was supposed to execute, but not in a programming language. This was to be simply translated into code, by a worker bee (programmer) into a computer language, viola, ofcourse we have a flawless system. The need to write pseudo-code for someone else (the worker bee/mule) is, an admission if only latently, that we are hiring dimwits. If we follow this train of thought, another conclusion looms: usage of psuedo-code is a strain of intense micro-management, and a failure to understand the real nature of programming (at least programming in the small). As an aside: devotees of big-upfront design may have diagnosed correctly, that programming in the large, brings about its own set of problems; However they have unfortunately taken the wrong pill. They can detoxify, by reading Jack Reeves thoughts on software design. BTW, the gentleman, has nothing to do with the agile jamboree, just a very clear sighted (an endangered species) thoughtful, software developer. There is nothing wrong with a limited amount of upfront design, as long as we don’t try to develop the ‘perfect’ solution, while keeping in mind that this upfront design is just a draft, which can only be final, when the software works! (testing time, anyone!?!). So, unavoidably, we have to grapple with all sorts of detail, where the devil is hiding. So who is going to do all that grappling?

This brings us nicely to consider micro-management of teams. Serious software development takes place in a far more complex and fast changing environment than ever before. The work is highly interconnected with frequent changes (and surprises) streaming in. Many competencies are involved, with many things having to come together for a a successful result. It is impossible for one manager to do all the basic thinking and detailing. Much of the simple software has already been built, and most worthy teams are left with the implementation of involved software solutions. Therefore, the manager in question has to continually re-issue instructions to the team as events occur, surprises spring, lessons knock hard and the real target (software we need, as opposed to have wanted some time ago) reveals itself. It is, I’m afraid something of a losing battle.

Instead, the manager must work more as a facilitator, who ensures that the necessary resources and tools are provided to the team, and that impediments to team deliverables are removed. Having done this, it is best for the manger to get out of the way. It is not the manager’s job to order the team around; rather, it is the team that decides on how much to commit and how to deliver (from the top of the product backlog).

Breathing down the team’s neck and micro-managing it from the outside sends a signal that the team is not responsible. It then becomes the manager’s job to commit and then worry about how to get things done. This limits productivity, innovation and creativity in the team, chokes communications and, in time, results in disengagement and apathy. Actually this state of affairs is so widespread that it is the new normal.  That is why, we should encourage self-management.

If ownership firmly rests with the team, there is greater focus, sense of responsibility and motivation to perform. Let the team manage itself. The manager’s job is to keep the focus on the bigger picture and help if the need arises. At the same time—and paradoxical though it may seem— the manager must not lose sight of the critical details (important when teams are dealing with the rest of the organisation).

So, get your team together, emphasise goals, facilitate learning, offer to help, make it clear that you are watching and then,…let go! You should rather be spending your time to prepare for a role at an n+1 level than get bogged down with the details at n-1. Potentially a depressing corollary, is that one circumstance micro-management could succeed is where the project on hand is relatively straightforward! So, maybe, that project you are so successfully micro-managing, is just a run of the mill work, where low intelligence finds a comfortable home. It would also be interesting to know what you think of the BBCs advice on micro-management. Actually if you think about it, many managers cannot even really micro-manage, but try to give the impression that they are on top of things. A waste of energy, time and in acute cases, even space.

Therefore, in general, I advise eschewing micro-management, but hold your breadth, further flutters await you….

Some thoughtful birds in my circle of acquaintances, debated over the need for managers at all (in all shapes and forms !?!). I’m all set to write about that as well, in a day or two.