Tips for Managing Technical People – People management takes the most time

22 May 2014, by

The following is an excerpt from my new book, “Galvanizing the Geeks – Tips for Managing Technical People”. You can buy the full book on my website, here.

What do managers actually do?

Almost every manager started their career as a ‘doer’ – including me. When I worked as a software developer, with clear tasks to achieve that appeared to compose the majority of any delivery, it wasn’t always clear to me what managers added. Apart from some tangible, visible tasks, such as liaising with the client or setting up a build server, the process of management appeared a little mysterious.

As a manager you have two things to manage: people, and process. The process-management tasks are usually the most visible. They’re the ones that clearly take time: writing a report to the business, creating a risk log, phoning up third parties to find out why their interface isn’t working, and so on. If you are asked to account for your time and you explain that you have been writing a report, it will be easily understood what you have been doing.

On the other hand, it can often be assumed that managing a team of people takes literally no time at all. You simply work out what everyone needs to do, tell them, give them a quick motivational speech, and you’re done. If only it were that simple!

What does people management entail?

You need to have enough time set aside to engage with the individuals who report to you. A good framework to use is to think of people management as a three-step process: set goals and give a clear brief, monitor progress, and give detailed feedback frequently (including positive feedback).

Exceptional, experienced individuals may be able to set their own goals, report back to you frequently so that they are bearing the brunt of the monitoring work, and even analyse their own performance. But even these individuals need you to spend a certain amount of time with them. You need to be inputting into and verifying their goals. You need to be carefully reviewing their status reports, and you need to be giving them feedback on how they are doing. Getting your team to this level should be one of your training goals – once you have individuals who can self-manage in this way, management becomes a very pleasant job.

At the other end of the scale, someone who is new to the team, perhaps a recent graduate with no workplace experience, might require a tremendous amount of support. Before you can even start on the first briefing step, you will need to build rapport so that you can communicate and feedback more smoothly. Briefing will take longer, and you will need to spend extra time verifying that your brief has been understood. Lack of a clear initial briefing is the single most common reason for underperformance. More monitoring will be required, and, until you have trained your managee to take the action upon themselves to report to you at intervals, you will need to spend time actively acquiring updates on their progress. Feedback to more junior members must also be more detailed and more copious; it is more important to follow the 5:1 rule to avoid dis-incentivisation (the 5:1 refers to the ratio between positive and negative feedback – you should give five pieces of positive feedback for every piece of constructive criticism).

What if I don’t bother?

Despite being the most important task, people management seems to easily drop off the bottom of busy managers’ task lists. I think this is because, while people management is an important task, it seldom seems urgent. If you don’t spend time managing your people, the difference may be imperceptible – at least to begin with. Over time, however, the relationship will drift away, with views and aims becoming increasingly misaligned. Once you are your team have substantially different ideas about how best to do the job, or even about what job it is that needs doing, serious problems will ensue. And to sort out these problems will take, yep, even more time.

Your job as a manager is to ensure team cohesion, with everyone pulling in the same direction. You can’t achieve this if you don’t put the time in.

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Categories: Technical


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