Management by conversation

I’ve been going in circles on my current assignment at work for close to a week. Somebody else was assigned to the project today, and we sat down and I started talking through what I thought needed to get done. And it all just flowed right out. It always kills me when that happens; I sit and “think” and get nothing done, but when I talk to somebody, it all comes together. Which reminds me of two stories.

One is of an IT support organization at a college someplace (I don’t remember any details). The room where all of the techs sat had a teddy bear at the front counter. The rule was that before you could talk to any of the techs, you first had to explain the problem you were having with your computer to the teddy bear. About half the time, the person would start talking through the problem, and say “Oh, I forgot to do…” and walk out. It’s a pretty clever system.

The other is of my days at TEP. My junior year at TEP, I was Rush Chair. Rush was a big deal at MIT at that time, because freshmen chose where they wanted to live in their first four days at MIT. And once they moved into a place with similar-minded people, they tended to get comfortable and never move again. So if you didn’t make an impression in those first four days, you didn’t get freshmen. No freshmen, no pledges. No pledges, fewer brothers, bigger housebills, eventual financial devastation. Anyway.

So Rush was a big deal. At TEP, we’d worked out a system where the Rush Chair was generally a junior, so that the Rush Chair Emeritus was available as a senior to help them survive the experience. One year after I graduated, I decided to go back and hang out for Rush, and participate in the Crock Opera. Except my leisurely vacation was not to be, because the Rush Chair Emeritus had decided to transfer, leaving the current Rush Chair without a sage to appeal to. So I filled that role.

And I learned something about “leadership”. My role basically consisted of hanging out at TEP. Underclassmen would run up to me and say “Perlick, what should I be doing?!” I’d say, “Well, what do you think you should be doing?” “I think I should be doing this!” “Okay, then, go do that.” “Great! Thanks!” I probably offered occasional refinements, but mostly my role was to be an external authority to validate their perceptions of what needed to be done.

And that’s what happened today when talking to my co-worker. I didn’t really need him to straighten things out. I would have done almost as well talking to the teddy bear. It was just the process of laying things out in words that helped me to clarify priorities.

This is part of why I started writing this blog – to take ideas that are running in circles in my head, and see if the very process of trying to write them up makes them clearer. Sometimes it does. Other times, it’s at least a good forum for venting.

I’d relate this observation to some larger point about managers needing to learn that their job isn’t to control, but to facilitate and empower their employees, but it’s late, and it’s obvious, anyway.

3 thoughts on “Management by conversation

  1. (nods) I used to frequently describe my job as a series of exchanges where people would say “I have a problem, X, with solution Y. What should I do?”

    And I would say “Wait, wait, wait. Your problem is X?” And they would nod.
    And I would say “And your solution is Y?” And they would say “Great, thanks!” and run off.

    And I’ve become used to writing emails that go “I don’t really understand your question. You _might_ mean X, but you probably don’t. You _might_ mean Y, but that would be stupid. You might mean Z… in fact you almost certainly do.” then deleting that email and starting over with “Assuming you mean Z, the answer is blah.”

    But my favorite was when someone came to me with a proposed implementation to review and, after reviewing it, I said “It looks OK to me, but you should run it by so-and-so as well, because he understands this stuff better than I do. For example, he will undoubtedly catch that error over there, which I missed.”

    Entirely sincerely.

    My head is a strange and wondrous place.

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