Monday, December 1, 2014

Management void

Too many companies are in trouble because no one is managing them. In the scope of this blog entry, management means managing work so that it works, and looking after the organization so that it is functional (and I really don’t care to get into the difference between management and leadership, or their various different flavours).

By management I mean mundane things like:
  • Making sure we understand why we are in this meeting and know what outcomes to expect from it
  • Knocking the heads of right people together so they start talking and getting stuff done
  • Listening to gripes and figuring out if they are symptoms of bigger issues
  • Making sure that that teams understand their purpose
  • Checking that the proverbial inputs and outputs of people are compatible and that there are no gaps
  • Balancing capacity and workload

Methods, processes and tools are useful within their bounds. But if it is no-one’s job to use them and apply common sense to everyday work situations, they don’t really matter. Method wars and academic debates about the finer points of Kanban, or Scrum, or Cynefin or whatever is tiring. Who cares about the finest method for whatever, if there is no bootstrap person to start using it? It is a chicken and an egg problem. One that Douglas Adams illustrates beautifully in his book Mostly Harmless. It's a story about a spaceship that gets hit by a meteorite, right in the section of it that's supposed to detect that it's been hit by a meteorite.

Let’s look at some practical examples.

Example 1: Graphic Design Bottleneck

One graphic designer supports ten software development teams all of which are working on some kind of a Web user interface. He is a huge bottleneck, overworked and on the verge of tears. It would be easy to fix the problem by having a chat with the designer, seeing what the problems are, and checking how teams see the situation. Then maybe hire another designer or get a freelancer, or whatever. But how can the situation get fixed when it literally no one’s job? Which method would fix this?

Example 2: The Lone Project Manager

A project manager was once given a project to complete in an organization with about 100-200 people. After several months, the project had made no progress and steering group was whipping the project manager. The project manager was frustrated because  she had for the past months reported over and over again to the steering group that her project has zero staff, and she is not a programmer and cannot do the work herself. Duh?

This case was insidious because there was a systemic problem in the background. The organization was simultaneously working on about 400 projects due to overselling caused by aggressive sales targets. One person could be assigned to work simultaneously on as many as eight projects. And the project manager was unable to steal any staff to her project.

Which tool or method could have fixed this problem? Systems thinking, common sense, a Toyota-style gemba walk where management goes to meet the project manager and teams, a Lean value stream map or portfolio Kanban to illustrate the sub-optimized sales organization, or perhaps Scrum with it’s impediments illustrating the problem? Perhaps so, but whose job is it to fix the problem and apply these methods? My answer is: the same Mr. Nobody whose job it is to act on project managers’ reports.

Example 3: Subcontractor Squeeze

An extremely competent Scrum team was subcontracted by a major company. The company already has several software development teams working on other things, plus a team of in-house designers to do graphics and user interface stuff.

After some months the subcontracted team is in agony. They are being pressured by their customer to produce results. Contract penalties are discussed. The team reports that they are constantly delayed because it takes three weeks to get support from the customer’s design team for even the most trivial of things. The design team reports being drowned in work while they struggle to support fifteen other teams. The actual client of the competent Scrum team cannot do anything, since even though the design team is a part of his company it is a part of another organization and beyond his influence.

How to fix? Scrum was used and impediments were raised with no effect. Visualizing the design team’s work with Kanban, Theory of Constraints or whatever would have illustrated the bottleneck. So would talking with people over a cup of coffee. But so what? Since it is no one’s responsibility, the problem will not get fixed.


As long as it is no one’s job to look after things and make the work work, we will have:

  • Frustrated, stressed out, despairing people
  • People quitting projects and companies
  • Over-stressed organizations
  • Silos that fight instead of working together
  • Piss-poor performance
  • Fine methods and tools that fail to produce results and are dismissed as fads
  • Money lost
  • Human potential wasted

In conclusion: the management void trumps methods and destroys everything.

Update Dec 2nd 2014:
Organizations and companies have plenty of managers, but their job descriptions rarely include management as I mean it in this blog post. World needs not more managers, it needs more people "managing work so that it works, and looking after the organization so that it is functional".

Update July 7th 2016:
What is needed is more human beings as opposed to roles and shells, and more feeling of ownership, as in responsibility.

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