But it’s just talking!

One of the things that many of my friends have been struggling with is that managers don’t really do anything. These friends are highly technical people, so when they think of doing something, they think of time spent in the lab, or coding on a computer, or building something. When they see a manager spending all of their time in meetings or talking to various people while they are struggling to get their tasks done, it can cause resentment.

And they continue to hold onto these prejudices even when they become managers themselves. One friend gets frustrated because he doesn’t feel he’s getting anything done at work because he spends all his time talking. Another looks back longingly on the days when they could just code and not worry about dealing with other people.

So what are managers doing? What is it with all the talking?

Sometimes thinking through ideas out loud is the only way the next step can be identified. Just by forcing their team members to articulate what’s going on, managers can often move people forward when they’re stuck in “blank page” syndrome or are procrastinating. My best manager (the coworker mentioned in that post actually) dropped by my desk once a week, in classic HP “management by walking around” fashion, to review what I’d done the past week, where I was stuck, and what I should get done the next week. It wasn’t any sort of formal meeting, but it helped me stay focused and gave me a chance to get unstuck.

Sometimes they’re talking so you don’t have to. One of the primary responsibilities of the manager of a technical team is to protect their team from the rest of the organization. Other departments at the organization may be after the team to produce documents, fill out surveys, participate in training seminars, etc. The manager is intercepting those requests and fighting them appropriately so the team doesn’t have to spend time thinking about that stuff. Even when the manager loses those battles, they can at least present the busywork on their terms, rather than let their team be interrupted every day by such requests.

Sometimes they are keeping things coordinated. The larger an organization is, the more effort is necessary to keep everybody moving in the same direction. Even when everybody thinks they understand which way is forward, they may have different ideas. The programmer needs to be dissuaded from spending several weeks re-designing the infrastructure to make it “just right” because there are customer features that need to be implemented. In this scenario, the manager is like a sheepdog, identifying wayward wanderers and bringing them back to travel with the rest of the group. Occasionally, the wanderers are correct in trying to lead the group in a new direction, and then it’s up to the manager to communicate that understanding to the rest of the group.

Sometimes they are figuring out the direction themselves. Determining the priorities and which way the team should be heading is part of being a manager and leader. But it can’t be done autocratically or the team will just ignore the direction because of unrealistic expectations and go their own way. And if the manager sets priorities without consultation with the customers, the team could work for months and produce something that can’t be sold. Maintaining these lines of communication between the team and management and customers requires yet more talking.

Sometimes they’re just keeping tabs on what’s going on. To keep a team motivated requires knowing what each team member is working towards, and what they are inspired by. Figuring that out involves understanding them as people so you can determine how you can frame the company goals in such a way as to match their personal goals. People can be motivated by money, by recognition, by power, etc., and choosing the wrong method can be disastrous (as one manager memorably remarked “Oh, right, Eric needs the carrot, not the stick!” after he attempted to strongarm me into doing something and I reacted violently in a contrary fashion).

Of all of these, I think the most important is the direction and coherence a good manager can provide. I believe in the amplification of coherent effort (Work Amplification by the Stimulated Effort via Rewards (WASER?)) – that a team is greater than the individual sum of its parts. But the opposite definitely happens – if one person is going in the wrong direction, it destroys the coherence of the team effort, reducing the total output of the team by far more than that one person’s contribution.

I like to think of the effect of a good manager as being a force multiplier. They may not “do” anything themselves, but they make everybody around them more productive. For instance, if they can take a team where the team members are each going their own way and the team is performing at the equivalent of half the total of the individual efforts, and transform it into a coherent team which performs at the equivalent of double the total individual efforts, they have added an enormous amount of value despite doing none of the work themselves.

So even though they are “just talking”, don’t underestimate the value of a good manager. And for those of my friends who are moving into management and frustrated by not “doing anything”, maybe this will help you frame the contributions you are making to your organization.

9 thoughts on “But it’s just talking!

  1. Hear, hear. And I definitely appreciate a good manager. Speaking for myself, I pretty much loathe being in meetings with more than 3-4 people.

    I think the problem is that the typical manager is not doing the good things you describe. The typical manager is someone who spends all day in meetings, but still makes you feel like you are dealing with all the stuff they should be dealing with, and therefore you feel like they aren’t doing anything, and also you’re resentful because they’re getting paid way more than you. The typical manager in a technical organization is someone who never had deep technical skills — they either went the MBA route or (even worse) were promoted past their competence. Therefore they are completely incapable of offering worthwhile technical direction.

    Hooray for good managers. I wish they were more common.

  2. Good observations, both you and Rif. The geek mindset values competency, and I think most geeks are comfortable with managers who exhibit expertise at dealing with the social systems that surround the employee. Dissatisfaction arises when that expertise is either invisible or non-existent, but the geek is still expected to defer to the manager…

    Anyway, I mostly wanted to comment to mention that I really like the Aztecs vs Greeks article in your Recent Bookmarks over in the sidebar. I will always regard the people as the best thing I got out of MIT, but I think humility and perspective might be the second-best thing.

  3. “SHIT BLOCKERS” comes to my mind.
    Managers are people who has the ability to manage resources or manage expectations. That is what makes managers hard.

  4. Sometimes they’re talking so you don’t have to. One of the primary responsibilities of the manager of a technical team is to protect their team from the rest of the organization.

    Yeah, I’ve always referred to this managerial role as “shit umbrella”–and I agree that it’s pretty vital.

    Sometimes they are keeping things coordinated. The larger an organization is, the more effort is necessary to keep everybody moving in the same direction.

    Yeah, the “information traffic cop” role. I have been really frustrated with some of my colleagues, who sometimes do the managerial job, and completely fail to do this well. My other colleagues figure, “oh no, we’re relying on him for information; he’s going to be the rate limiting step for us getting anything done.”

  5. Huh. I was just writing another email about management and looked up my post from last year on the social construction of management, where I address many of these same points, grounded in the theoretical discussion of Bruno Latour. Man, it’s a bit wacky when I’ve gotten his ideas so embedded in my brain that I can reference them without knowing I am.

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