I was a team leader twice. The first time it happened by accident. There was a team leader, three developers (me one of them), and a small project was specified. On the first day, something very urgent happened (I don’t remember what), the supposed leader was re-assigned to something else, and we three were left without supervision for unspecified time period. Being the oldest and most experienced person in the room, I took initiative and asked: “so, guys, as I see it, we use an existing database, so what needs to be done is: back-end code, front-end code, and some stylesheets; anyone has a preference which part he would like to do?” And luckily, each of us wanted to do a different part. So the work was split, we agreed on mutual interfaces, and everyone did his part. It was nice and relaxed environment: everyone working alone at their own speed, debating work only as needed, and having some friendly work-unrelated chat during breaks.
In three months we had the project completed; everyone was surprised. The company management assumed that we will only “warm up” during those three months, and when the original leader returns, he will lead us to the glorious results. (In a parallel Everett branch, where he returned shortly before we finished the product, I wonder whether he got a bonus and promotion.) Then everything returned to normal: more micromanagement, lower productivity, people burned out.
The second time, we were a small group working together for some time already. Then our manager quit. No one knew who would get the role next, and in an attempt to deflect a possible danger, I volunteered to do it on top of my usual work. What happened was that everyone worked exactly the same as they did before, only without the interruptions and extra stress caused by management, and I got some extra paperwork which I gradually reduced to minimum. The work progressed so well—no problems, no complaints from users, the few tickets we got almost always turned out to be a problem outside our project—that higher management concluded that there is apparently too litle work to do on our project, so the team members were assigned to also work on extra projects in parallel.
Perhaps my short experience is not representative, but it suggests that a manager, merely by not existing, could already create a top-decile work environment in terms of both work satisfaction and productivity. The recommended mantra to recite every day is: “first, do no harm”. My experience also suggests that this approach will ultimately get punished, despite the increased productivity: the expected outcome is more work for no pay raise until you break, or just being told to return to the old ways without any explanation why. I assume I am missing some crucial maze-navigating skills; for someone trying to be a professional manager this would be fatal; luckily I do not have this ambition.
It is quite possible that this approach only works when there is a good team: in both cases I worked with people who were nice above average. If you had a dominant asshole in the team, this could easily become a disaster: the power vacuum left by a passive manager would simply be replaced by an ambitious alpha male, who would probably soon be promoted into the role of formal leader. So perhaps the companies play it safe by using a widely applicable strategy that happens to be inferior in the case of good employees who also happen to be good people; quite likely this is because the companies simply cannot recognize such people.
Is there a leadership level beyond this? Sure, but in my quarter century of career I have only met such manager once. What he did was basically meeting each of his people once a day in the morning (this was long before I heard about “daily standups” and such) and talking with him for 5 or 10 minutes; with each team member separately, in the manager’s room. He asked the usual questions “what did you do yesterday?”, “what is your plan for today?”, “are there any obstacles to your work?”, but there was zero judgment, even if you said things like “yesterday I had a really bad day, I tried some things but at the end it was wrong and I had to throw it all away, so today I am starting from scratch again”; essentially he treated you like an adult person and assumed that whatever you did, there was a good reason for that. Before and after the report, a very short small talk; it helped that he was extremely intelligent and charismatic, so for many people this was the best part of the day. Also, the obstacles in work that you mentioned, he actually did something about them during the day, and always reported the outcome to you the next morning. Shortly, for the first and the last time so far in my career, I had a regular feeling that someone listens to me and cares about what I do (as opposed to just whipping me to run faster in order to meet arbitrary deadlines, randomly interrupting me for no good reason, second-guessing my expert opinion, etc.).
So yes, there is a level beyond “not doing harm” and it is called “actually motivating and helping”, but I guess most managers dramatically overestimate their ability to do it… and when they try regardless, and ignore the feedback, they actively do harm.
Thank you a lot. Your detailed account really helps me understand your perspective much better now. I can relate to your experience in teams where micromanagement slows things down and prevents actually relevant solutions. I have been in such teams. I can also relate to it being advantageous when a leader of questionable value is absent. I have been in such a team too—though it didn’t have such big advantages as in your case. That was mostly because this team was part of a bigger organization and platform where multiple teams had to work together to something done, e.g. agree on interfaces with other teams. And in the absence of clear joint goals that didn’t happen. Now you could argue that then the management one level up was not doing its job well and I agree. But the absence of that management wouldn’t have helped either—it could have led to a) each team trying to solve some part of the problem. It could have led to b) some people from both teams getting together and agreeing on interfaces and joining goals or it could have led to c) the teams agreeing on some coordination for both teams. a) in most cases leads to some degree of chaos and failure and b) establishes some kind of leadership on the team level (like you did in your first example) and c) results over time in some leadership one level up. I’d argue that some kind of coordination structure is needed. Where did the project you did implement in your first case come from? Somebody figure out that it would provide value to the company. Otherwise, you might have built a beautiful project that didn’t actually provide value. I think we agree that the company you worked in did have some management that provided value (I hope it was no moral maze). And I agree that a lot of managers do not add value and sometimes decrease it. On the other hand, I have worked for great team leads and professional managers. People who would listen, let us make our own decisions, give clear goals but also limits, help, and reduce impediments. This is really not a secret art. The principles are well-known (for a funny summary see e.g. Leadersheep). But it turns out that building a big organization is hard. Politics is real and professional management is still mostly a craft. It rarely approaches something you can call engineering much less hard science. And I am looking for that. That’s part of why I wrote this shortform on processes and roles. Everybody is just cooking with water and actual organization structures often leave something to be desired. I guess that’s why we do see extraordinary companies like Amazon sometimes—that hit on a sweet spot. But by talent or luck, not by science. And the others have to make do with inadequate solutions. Including the managers of which you maybe saw more than I did.
this team was part of a bigger organization and platform where multiple teams had to work together to something done, e.g. agree on interfaces with other teams. And in the absence of clear joint goals that didn’t happen.
I have seen this happen also in a small team. Two or three guys started building each his own part independently, then it turned out those parts could not be put together; each of them insisted that others change their code to fit his API, and refused to make the smallest change in his API. It became a status fight that took a few days. (I don’t remember how it was resolved.)
In another company, there was a department that took care of everyone’s servers. Our test server crashed almost every day and had to be restarted manually; we had to file a ticket and wait (if it was after 4PM, the server was restarted only the next morning) because we did not have the permission to reset the server ourselves. It was driving us crazy; we had a dedicated team of testers, and half of the time they were just waiting for the server to be restarted; then the week before delivery we all worked overtime… that is, until the moment the server crashed again, then we filed the ticket and went home. We begged our manager to let us pool two hundred bucks and buy a notebook that we could turn into an alternative testing environment under our control, but of course that would be completely against company policy. Their manager refused to do anything about it; from their perspective, it meant they had every day one support ticket successfully closed by merely clicking a button; wonderful metric! From the perspective of our manager’s manager, it was a word against a word, one word coming from the team with great metrics and therefore more trustworthy. (The situation never got solved, as far as I know.)
...I should probably write a book one day. Except that no one would ever hire me afterwards. So maybe after I get retired...
So, yes, there are situations that require to be solved by greater power. In long term it might even make sense to fire a few people, but the problem is that these often seem to be the most productive ones, because other people are slowed down by the problems they cause.
Where did the project you did implement in your first case come from? Somebody figure out that it would provide value to the company. Otherwise, you might have built a beautiful project that didn’t actually provide value. I think we agree that the company you worked in did have some management that provided value (I hope it was no moral maze).
Yeah, but we have two different meanings of the word “management” here. Someone who decides which project to do—this is useful and necessary. Or someone who interrupts you every day while you are trying to work on that project—I can imagine that in some teams this may also be necessary, but arguably then your problem is the team you have (at least some parts of it). Motte and bailey of management, sort of.
From epistemic perspective, I guess the problem is that if you keep micro-managing people all the time, you can never learn whether your activity actually adds or removes value, simply because there is nothing to compare to. (I guess the usual null hypothesis is “nobody ever does anything”, which of course make any management seem useful; but is it true?) Looking at the incentives and power relations, the employee at the bottom doesn’t have an opportunity to prove they could work just as well without the micro-management, and the manager doesn’t have an incentive to allow the experiment. There is also the “heads I win, tail you lose” aspect where bad employee performance is interpreted as necessity of more management, but good employee performance is interpreted as good management, so either way management is perceived as needed.
This is really not a secret art. The principles are well-known (for a funny summary see e.g. Leadersheep).
Yep. That’s a very good summary. Heh, I fail hard at step 1 (creating, or rather communicating a strong vision).
But it turns out that building a big organization is hard. Politics is real and professional management is still mostly a craft. It rarely approaches something you can call engineering much less hard science.
Seems analogical to social sciences: in theory, they are much more difficult than math or physics, so it would make sense if smarter people studied them; in practice, it’s the other way round, because if something is too difficult to do properly, it becomes easy to bullshit your way to the top, and intelligent people switch to something where being intelligent gives you a clear comparative advantage.
Good luck to you! I suppose your chances will depend on how much autonomy you get; it is hard to do things right, if the sources of problem are beyond your control. However, if you become a great manager and your people will like you, perhaps in the future you can start your own company and give them a call whether they would like to work for you again.
Thank you. I agree with your view. Motte and bailey of management yep. I especially liked this: