Learning to control without control

» 23 August 2009 » In management, rambles »

This post forms part of my larger blog on starting out as a manager. See here for the full post…

This was a hard one for me. Just after I started this gig, our biggest client decided they wanted to use one of the apps I look after in a big way. Like two orders of magnitude larger than our current biggest client used it. There was lots of uncertainty. There were lots of meetings – internally figuring out how we were going to do this and externally convincing the client we could do this. I had to be at most of these meetings but, worse, I had to keep track of what my team were up to, how they were getting on, how likely it was that we were going to meet our commitments.

Timelines were tight. I reckon in that first month I spent 20 – 25 hours a week in meetings. I had days with solid meetings from 10am – 7pm. That really hurts. Then I’d get out and the guys would ask me questions. Everything was moving so fast. I’d get home from work and read SVN commits until my eyes no longer focused on the screen because I needed to know how everything worked, to understand exactly how the team were building all the plans we had, to be confident when I was asked how things were going that I knew because I understood every new line of code.

This was a mistake.

This was not very sustainable.

I’m glad I realised the error in my ways.

The trick here is to threefold.

  1. Trust & understand your team. I’m lucky enough to work for a company that only hires very bright people. People with energy, enthusiasm and a genuine desire to produce really good work. That doesn’t mean these guys are infallible. Trust your team to do what they say they’ll do, but understand them well enough to know how likely that is to happen and what you need to do to increase that likelihood.After a certain size a project gets to a state where one person can’t understand everything that’s going on at every level.

    As a Project Manager you need to learn to control the game without having control of all the pieces. Your job isn’t to be the most knowledgeable dude on the project. Your job is to be the dude who knows who the most knowledgeable guys and girls are for every piece of the puzzle. Sure, that’s going to be you for some bits – but it won’t be you for everything. Figure out who is, what makes them tick, and how you can keep them on your side. For most techies  I know, listening to them, showing you respect their opinions and, when they differ from yours, taking the time to explain why is a good place to start.

  2. Communicate. I guess this is part of understanding in the above bullet, but find a way to help your team communicate. This isn’t something you can just read about, as it’ll depend on the dynamics of the team – individual personalities within the team, the size of the team, how dispersed your are from one another etc. Luckily for me, this one was pretty easy. We all sit in the same office, in the same city & we all get on well. So I had a good starting point but we’ve improved on this in a couple of ways:
    • Daily standups: We get together every day and have a 15 minute chat about what we’re planning to do and what we got done yesterday. These are useful for me – the manager – but are actually really useful for the gang too. People get a chance to say what they’re working on and more often than not somebody else pops up with some interesting titbit on the subject. Knowledge sharing – for free (well, almost). Winner!
    • Beer: Yup, that’s right kids. Beer. Or whatever other non-work activity you and your gang fancy doing. Every couple of months one of the guys cooks for the rest of us at their place, rotating around the team. We leave work together, grab a few beers, eat some tasty food, watch a movie or shoot some bad guys and generally hang out. This sounds like a small thing, but it’s about bringing the team together. Inviting them into your home creates a bond and helps the team gel. (The last time we did this we actually had the team doing to cooking rather than the one guy – who was ill – and that was even better!). Fostering a sense of family will help you make the transition from a group of guys working on the same project to a team of guys working to help each other out.
  3. Define the goals for your team. This one seemed so obvious to me once I thought about it, but wasn’t something we were doing anywhere in the company. I’m not sure if that’s due to our past – a small company full of friends, where the goals are naturally shared by being surrounded by like minded people you know well. But as you grow you can’t continue like this.

    Why are they important? Simply because, as a manager if you’re to trust your team to get on with their work you need to ensure that you both understand which of the many tasks available are the most important. My team has responsibility not just for development, but for operational support, testing, maintenance & end user support (to an extent), so it’s not always straight forward to figure out what the most important task to be getting on with right now.

    If as a team you can’t agree on what you’re biggest priorities are how do you expect to operate effectively?

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One Comment on "Learning to control without control"

  1. mrtom
    J.B.
    12/01/2011 at 1:29 am Permalink

    control without control is trust in a system where everyone follows the same goal.
    This has helped me a lot. Thank You!

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