In our 12 hours of driving to and from Santa Barbara one of the topics that came up was management (poor Jul). We talked about the different phases of learning to be a manager (which can be brutal, sorry Mandy) and what actually defines a good manager. There are about a million books you can read on the subject but those books often miss the basics (and aren’t written by me).
When you first become a manager one of the major changes is people come to you to ask for your people’s time. Initially I remember taking this as a capacity analysis, “Does my team have the capacity to handle this task?” What you notice is when you manage good people, they typically know the answer question. After awhile you realize you are just a middleman for whether they have capacity. Nobody wants to be a middleman (unless you are eBay, and then you are totally psyched).
Now don’t get me wrong, the fact that somebody has to come and ask for time actually provides a great deal of value. When a requestor has to justify their request to a manager they get amazingly selective about what they are willing to ask for. But if you really think about it, this position could be filled by a cardboard cutout of Donald Rumsfield. “Go justify your request to Rumsfield. If you can withstand that menacing glare for more than 5 minutes, your request must be valid.”
What a cardboard cutout can’t have is a strong, informed opinion of what a team should be doing. Why does it make sense for them to handle this new request? What would they NOT be doing if they handled this new request? How does this fit into their role? I think too many manager get lost in the capacity question and forget to have a strong opinion on what their people should be doing.
This becomes even more critical because most managers (myself included) underestimate the amount of time “the little things” take. If you let the organization ping your people to death they won’t be able to do their actual job (unless handling pings is their job). And the threshold for “pinging to death” is a lot lower than you think. Imagine I asked you to do a 3 hour task at 1pm but then interrupted you twice with a 15 minute interruption. When would you be done with the task? I’ll give you a clue, it isn’t 4:30.
I’m not arguing that a manager should ignore requests outside of the current running project — if a customer has a question, somebody needs to answer it. I just want managers to understand the impact of these requests and the role they play in who does them.
Oh, and if you work for me you aren’t aloud to refer to this post when I ask you to handle an incoming request. Yes, this is what you should be doing (it I totally helping you advance your career), and no, I’m not interested in the impact this request has on the project. Now get to work.