Am I A Good Manager?

I am sitting in a cafe in San Francisco, enjoying my double espresso and killing  bit of time before I fly home. I love this city. There is so much more of it that I want to visit and explore, so why am I instead churning over a simple question?

 

Mirror mirror in my mind

mirrormirror

I had a lovely day yesterday with two friends from back home who recently moved out here. I worked with Sylvain at a software company in Ottawa for over a decade. One problem we clearly have is that when we do get together, our conversations tend to drift to our shared experiences at that company. I am quite positive that this gets annoying for anyone else who is along for the ride (sorry Andrew, and thank you for accommodating our social dysfunction).

Somewhere along the way, Sylvain asked me the following question:

“Do you think you are a good manager?”

I opened my mouth expecting an answer to join me in this effort. I closed my mouth. Opened it again… still no answer. It has now been a full day and I find myself still considering this question. It feels like an amazingly simple question, but I have discovered it to be very complex. Not just in how I evaluate “good” but also with respect to how I feel about the way I go about answering it.

Am I a good manager? What does this simple question mean? Am I contributing to a safe environment for the team? Am I challenging them? Am I helping them with their careers? How would I gather evidence to make such an assessment? Also, what are we comparing me to? The last person in this role? Other people that members of the team have reported to over their careers? Expectations that were set over a lifetime of growing and learning? Wait, this is only considering those who were in my group. I would need to consider many dimensions for members of other teams. What about the other managers? I worked with them on a daily basis to help our department function. I should consider my department executives, and the senior leadership of the company. With each new connection, I am not only measuring my effectiveness using different parameters of what interactions took place, but also applying a different measuring stick based on their personal histories and beliefs.

 

It’s just a question

alex

At this point, Sylvain deserves an answer for such a great question. I won’t lie, I truly wanted to answer “Yes I am”. But I not only struggled to properly evaluate myself given everything I just wrote, it also weighed on me that I had not really ever considered this before. I really need to do this. This should be important to me. This is important to me.

I started to think back to my time at my old company. I always discover a lot of joy thinking back to the relationships that I formed there. Some of my closest friendships formed there over years. We still meet often.

Some of my greatest learnings (professional and personal) took place at that company as well. And… Not all of these learnings were emotionally positive. While I know of many individuals who speak quite fondly of my efforts within the team and across the organisation, I have also heard that others do not share these views. Especially my colleagues in the management layer. I have been told that some of the executives and directors mostly remember me as being aggressive… and angry. To them, I suspect that this is the lasting image of me that will stay with them forever. Truthfully, I was really quite hurt when I heard these opinions. It rocked me for a few weeks, but over time I have learned to accept it. I do not like being remembered this way, but those opinions are very fair. They reflect the relationships as they existed towards the end of my time there, and the deterioration of those relationships was a big part of why I left, and when I left.

 

So???

42-douglas-adams-42

I am still struggling with the question. Am I a good manager? Do I think that I am a good manager? Did I do a good job being a manager? Clearly I need to consider a point in time. Opinions on this question change depending on when the question might be asked. While trying to evolve a way to properly evaluate myself, I realised that there are some of the dimensions of “good management” that I should have considered more often:

 

Thinking About the Now, and Then

I have always felt that the role of a manager required releasing control of tactics, and helping others contribute to evolve a common strategy. I wanted to focus on providing others some insights to help them identify factors that contribute to their ability to make responsible and informed decisions.

However, as I consider the question that started this blog, I now am trying to define how I might best have worked on the relationships that could best define “Am I a good manager?” Taking a moment to reflect on individual relationships, it is immediacy that matters most. I am trying to consider a specific point in time, and evaluate all individual relationships. Why was each relationship important (from both perspectives)? How was I contributing to (or damaging) those elements that I and the other person each felt were the most valuable? Working across the identified relationships that I maintained at that time, I can likely form an evaluation of how I did… At that point in time.

I can then move to a different point in time to gather data and see how things changed. The very act of doing this causes me to question what internal and external factors contributed to the changes. If only I was still working at that company, I could probably align it to emails and events that might have impacted priorities and behaviours across the organisation.

Based on this effort, I am identifying some moments at my old company where I feel that I indeed was a good manager. I can also clearly circle some periods where in fact I would say that I was not. Certainly the period when I left is the strongest example of me not being a good manager, and leaving probably stands as the best “good manager” decision that I made at that time.

 

What is your point?

maxresdefault

I should apologise here. Most often when I write something, it is to share something that I feel is well thought out and “clear to me”. This time, I am writing to help me make sense of something. Specifically, why is this one question was so difficult to answer, and why that difficulty bothered me so much.

I think that I have settled on the following ideas:

  • One method of evaluating yourself as a manager is to do so based on maintaining relationships (in all directions)
  • As a tool, I have found that this works best when you focus on all relationships at a specific point in time. (If I had done this iteratively, I suspect that it would have been much easier and I might have designed an interesting approach to do so)
  • This helped me be be a bit more objective about my behaviours and helped me move away from summarising decades of professional work when considering the question.
  • I accept that I find that it is exceptionally hard to evaluate myself as a good or bad manager without providing context: “with who?”, “under what conditions?” and “pursuing what goals?”. It is a bit like being asked “are you the right person for any job?” without knowing what the job is and who you will work with.

I wrote my friend Sylvain to thank him. I feel that I have stumbled on an interesting new method to review my work week to week, and help me identify opportunities to improve my effectiveness within organisations. I have not fully flushed out an approach just yet, but it is a good start. I am anxious to see how this goes.

I think that the next time I am asked if I am a good manager, I will answer: “I know that I always want to be.”

 

How Rules Change the Game

It has been a rough 2016 for me so far… It started with me slipping and falling down some steps back in late December. That resulted in some very annoying problems with my neck, a solid month of lying flat in bed and about another six weeks of rehab. No sooner than I was cleared to get active, I seem to have picked up some form of never ending flu or cold that has had me once again flat out in bed.

The truth is… that I am bored.

37336_141329592545886_2492494_n.jpg

 

Win Win Win!!!

But, I am not writing about that. This is just some context. Because of this boredom, I have found myself watching a bit more sports than normal. As I watch, and listen to the commentators, I am hearing a consistent theme. Players are being not only rewarded, but applauded for abusing the rules entirely against the spirit and the principles of the game. Principles that existed in the sport long before these rules were introduced to help ensure their persistence.

  • “That’s a veteran play” – An NFL quarterback uses a hard snap count to get the defender to jump offside… The resulting 5 yard penalty and first down is awarded without having to run a play.
  • “Amazing awareness” – An NBA point guard intentionally initiates contact with a defender who has left his feet, and throws up a low percentage shot quickly… The resulting team foul lands the defenders team into penalty, and in addition the shooter is awarded two free throws.

These rules were never intended to be used as offensive tools.

  • The rules in football surrounding the start of every play evolved over decades with an intention to ensure that nobody gets an unfair advantage. It was intended to defend a prone quarterback.
  • Most rules about contact in basketball evolved dramatically, but initially were introduced with the intention to eliminate (or at least reduce) contact between players.

But then competition sets in. An independent referee is in place to pass judgement. Rulings on fairness fall into a model of “allowed/not allowed”. Principles are pushed to the side. The sport changes, and the way in which it is played, and coached changes. The way that we observe and cheer changes. Players are mocked for being tricked into violating the rules, and the trickster is heralded. In many sports, teams ensure that they have a professional “instigator” or “rat” to try to draw the other teams into foolish rule violations.

It upsets me to be honest. It creates an environment where role models are effectively teaching our children “As long as you can get away with it, it is okay”. I have never met a parent who admits to teaching this sort of thing to their kids.

 

Worst possible example

Deep in our hearts, a few already suspect what I am about to suggest. Football… or Soccer (Depends on where you are from, or what you feel like calling it) I love this game. I have always been passionate about it. To many, it IS the beautiful game. There is so much complexity and teamwork needed… and skill… and yet, it often gets decided by one person feeling a grab or touch near or in the penalty box to ensure a sure goal from the spot. 

Arjen_Robben_2958991b

Diving in men’s football is so well known that people who have never ever seen a game are familiar with this problem. It is a prime example of playing to the limit of the rule… cheating to get the rule to work in your favour.

But… there is hope. When rules are missing, and principle is the guiding source of behaviour… things change. We see this happen every game. We see it when a player goes down, and the ball is kicked off the pitch to stop the play. The ball is then returned to the team once the game restarts. It is a tradition, and it is almost never violated. Even the most supportive of home crowds would turn on their team if they violated this principle of fair play.

A similar principle exists in the touching of gloves in combat sports. If ever a combatant were to use this to advantage, they would pay a very steep price within the community of fighters.

Interestingly enough, I am willing to bet that if a rule were put in place for either of these examples, teams (or combatants) would do their very best to gain an advantage when adhering to the rule. It would destroy the spirit. The rule would replace the principle and would evolve into some form of competitive advantage as all rules do.

 

Since when do you write about sports?

Well, I don’t. This is really about leadership. When you ask your team to work within a set of rules, they will not just play to the limit of those rules… they are smart and may find ways to unintentionally abuse the rules to achieve goals. Principles however are something that can be discussed… often. I find that teams who have worked in a rule based culture rarely have a grasp of “why” we are trying to do something. This sort of conversation however is the cornerstone of a principle based culture. Even in the football (soccer) example above, I am willing to bet that any self respecting fan with children happily explains the principle when their young one asks why his or her favourite team is giving the ball back after an injury. The “why” IS the point. The “why” is what makes the act important, and is something that we feel we can align to.

I won’t be sick or injured forever. At some point, I will be able to get back into the swing of things, and I will be able to look at this period knowing that one new idea came to mind. And when the time comes, I will try to remember this. I will soon be part of a team trying to adopt a new methodology, or an approach… and I will do my best to suggest principles over rules, and open dialogue over why they matter, and not where the limits live.

 

 

The Performance Review That Didn’t Suck

No seriously. It happened. Want to hear about it?

I was wandering the streets of Prague with my good friend Joanne Perold, and we were swapping stories of cultures and practices gone by. We moved into the realm of dreaded performance reviews, and I revealed that I once was part of a performance review that not only did not suck, the two of us involved actually found the experience enjoyable. After telling the whole story, Jo just stopped, pointed at me and commanded: “Blog that”.

So this is me… doing that.

 

Status Quo…

A few years ago, I was employed at a mid-sized software company and was fortunate enough to manage a team of 18 very talented software testers. As a team we functioned well, and I felt that generally the team members were reasonably happy when it makes sense to be happy (I learned early on to never aim for always happy. Instead I strived to ensure that it was understood by all that I was always willing and available to help individuals achieve personal happiness)

There was however that one event that created serious havoc in our team harmony. The structured and highly standardized performance review. Year after year, our company HR department did their very best to morph this inhuman experience into something that would be universally beneficial, fair, enjoyable, and most importantly absolutely quantifiable. Each iteration felt more awkward and artificial than the last. It was in complete contrast to the easy style and communication paths that we had all worked so hard on to build in our team, and tying objectives/targets to financial motivators only made things worse.

 

Just One Straw…

The final straw happened one year when we set targets for the number of scores expected across the company and within each department. We now found ourselves being asked to modify history in order to justify meeting a curve.

It sucked.

I spoke with pretty much everyone on our team, and it became clear to me. Nobody enjoyed this. Nobody benefitted. It was an evil that was needed in order to complete a procedural step of allocating funding that was provided for financial changes in salary and bonuses.

At some point along the way, I found myself wondering what would happen if I did not actually perform the PR’s. Would they actually withhold the salary increase? Would they fire me? I just did not believe that we were that sort of company. We were a people first company (with the exception of these PR’s). So one year… we just did not execute the performance reviews

I had chatted with everyone on the team to discuss what we felt was fair with respect to salary increases. I revealed to each of them the total salary pool, and what that translated to if we were to divide it equally. We each discussed what we thought was fair, and in the end we had a salary increase distribution that was deemed fair by everyone, and not once was it tied to any targets or objectives. Then I just informed HR that the salary has been discussed, and that the PR’s were not completed yet.

About a month later I was asked about the progress. “Oh, we have been busy. Nothing yet”. Same next month. You probably get where this goes. When PR time came around the following year, I was a bit of a concern (target) in preparation for the upcoming discussions. Please do not get me wrong, the support from my immediate leadership was legendary. My boss trusted me, and understood that our team was constantly communicating and expressing how we felt about personal growth and team priorities. He trusted us, and he had my back. But that poor guy was left having to explain why I was effectively ignoring a procedural nightmare that every other manager in the company was required to complete. This weighed on me. It weighed on our team. We decided to see if there was a way to make this work.

 

O Brave New World…

I live a charmed life full of imaginative people who are willing to help me explore different ways of navigating the way we work and collaborate. One such fellow is my friend Edward (who is still an unknown entity on twitter but is secretly one of the best software testers I have ever worked with). Together we decided to dedicate some months exploring different ways in which we could run through our existing performance review, iterating often, making alterations based on some hypothesis, conducting retrospectives… learning.

The point of the first review was simple. Let’s go through it, submit it, identify what truly sucked and where we wanted to experiment, and by demonstrating that we have in fact “started” executing PR’s hopefully take some heat off my boss who was still standing strong believing in us and supporting us. The laundry list of things we did not like was deep. Even with the knowledge that we were exploring, learning and possibly improving our own situation, the nature of the review remained completely out of step with what our team held dear and what we felt mattered.

 

Missions over Objectives…

The first area of disconnect was the structure of the review, which clearly was intended to be entirely quantifiable. Even aspects of interpreted behaviours and interpersonal relationships were intended to be tied to milestones and assigned targets. This simply did not work for us. Our interactions were far too fluid, and as a team we were contributing to an evolving culture and product offering that took years to gel. As individuals, we were asked to fundamentally understand our company’s business goals, and to make responsible decisions daily on where to spend our time, and who to work with in order to help the R&D organization, and the larger corporate entity (as we understood it) succeed as a whole. Setting targets and goals prior to the upcoming period simply did not align with this approach, and it was not something that supported the ongoing culture shift towards motivated individuals, working together, learning and improving. So instead we identified some key missions that we felt spanned projects and features. Here is what we came up with:

Our team is actively investing time and effort into our portfolio of products and services. We work with every department within R&D and Product Management to:

Assist in Project Planning: Work with Product Management and Software Development to find congruence across our stakeholders and project teams. Goal: Uncover and eliminate shallow agreements as early as possible.

Test Ongoing Software Development: Question product behaviour, and apply critical thinking to every new testing challenge. Work with our teams to provide leads/developers continuous information through testing efforts throughout the project. Goal: Well informed team decision making… help our developers develop.

Contribute to Product Value Protection: Work with Engineering Support to design, build and support sustainable software checking frameworks for our supported products and services. Goal: A sustainable and trusted early warning system about product changes that may threaten the value of our product portfolio.

Continuously Research New Technologies: Technology is fun. As new problems are uncovered, brilliant innovation (across the industry) presents itself to address this need. The world is then changed, and new problems present themselves. Goal: Build everything with the notion that you will find a better way (soon) and prepare for that next opportunity. Learn, Contribute, Innovate.”

Armed with this, we started modifying our performance review to better resemble these missions, and the attributes we felt contributed to each decision to contribute as team members and individuals. With each iteration, we reflected on the changes, and how they contributed and took away from the experience, and tried to formulate a real purpose for the discussion as a whole.

 

Magic… the Gathering…

Somewhere along the path, we started to find our stride. Ideas for improvements came more naturally, and more personalized to how Ed and I communicated. After about six months, we had an enjoyable 90 minute long session and wrapped up to get back to work for the rest of the day. About 15 minutes later, Ed popped his head into my office and said “THAT was enjoyable, and I look forward to the next one”

“Yeah, me too” I said with an incredibly big smile and equally big sense of hope.

Here is a brief summary of that performance review:

  • On a whiteboard, we drew two axis:
    • Old ← →  New
    • Learn ← →  Do
    • whiteboard
  • Ed and I sat down, and we grabbed some sticky notes and independently started writing down everything we could think of that Edward worked on and everything that I worked on since the last time we spoke.
  • We then went to the whiteboard and started placing the stickies one by one on the board, describing the event to one another, and discussed where it belonged with respect to:
    • Was it time spent on something existing and understood, or was it something new and unexplored?
    • Was it time spent learning/exploring, or was it time spent on performing known skilled activities
  • Once the last sticky note was placed on the board, we created a colour legend for our whiteboard markers. Each colour represented one of our missions, and together we started circling and grouping the sticky notes according to which mission we felt they best applied. Many of the notes had multiple missions associated to them
  • We had a document now ready to be filled in, with two sections:
    • Section 1 was essentially “Here is what Ed and Martin discussed in this Performance review”
      • It was divided into four sections… one for each mission
      • Together wrote up each of the groupings into the agreed upon most appropriate mission, and described aspects of our conversation and general thoughts about how it went
    • Section 2 was very similar looking with four sections again matching our missions, but it was forward looking and titled “upcoming opportunities”
      • Here, Edward and I had a great chat about what we thought the two of us might be able to work on over the next period, and described some of the key information about relevant timelines, events and resources that we might need in order to experience some success/joy.
      • We also took some time to identify risks and concerns.
  • We reviewed what we wrote then and there, and signed it.
  • We smiled, and shook hands.

 

The Debrief…

A day or two later, Edward and I spoke a bit about this experience, and tried to unravel what made this approach so enjoyable, so relevant and so appropriate for the conversation we wanted to have. Here are some of our findings (as best we remember them):

  1. The review was not a measure of Edwards performance. Rather, what we discussed was our interactions and working relationship during the period in question. We are members of a team, and we depend on and trust one another. We share a common purpose. We strive for (at least) strongly related goals. We share in our success and we support one another when we struggle. The review of the period has to consider that teamwork, and not an individual’s actions
  2. We used a model that mapped very nicely to the model we use in everyday conversation about our work (It was not a new lens) Where we discovered gaps in alignment with corporate goals and strategy, this information had to be sought out. We immediately attempted to better understand the nature of these gaps both in our work as well as in this review.
  3. There was a familiar approach for looking back, and equally familiar when looking forward
  4. We gave ourselves as much time as was needed to complete all the conversations we wanted to have, and agreed on when we would have our next meeting.
  5. We filled in the document right there and then, and discussed the content throughout the time we spent together (no homework)
  6. We were both open to adapting the way in which the conversation took place, in order to accommodate each other.  The point was having a comfortable conversation. Not filling in the document.

 

Rinse! Repeat!

So, what next? Did we then institute a new approach to performance reviews based on this experience? No. This was not something that made sense for everyone. It worked, because it was tailored to suit the conversations that Edward and I wanted to have. It (currently) made sense to us, based on our relationship and our working environment. I would most certainly would have been willing to initiate the same sort of approach to identify a good mechanism for other team members, but the most obvious observation at this point is that there were simply too many people on my team to accomplish this approach. I had too many direct reports. I had not seen this before… Specifically because I had tools available to “complete my evaluation tasks” that did not require me to build appropriate relationships with my team members. The Performance Review model that we were asked to use was exactly this. A tool that enabled managers to systematically defend evaluations of individual effort based in very simple quantifiable parameters in a tight and orderly way. But real relationships are not like that, and real teams cannot work this way.

 

Looking at the Man in the Mirror…

So when all was said and done, Edward and I had achieved what I thought might not be possible. We found a model that worked for us, and one that we could both enjoy and one that complemented our working relationship. My main takeaways are that if ever I am asked to conduct anything like performance reviews again, I will look for an opportunity to involve my teammates in the design, and evolution. I will look for there to be autonomy for each member to evolve the approach as our relationships evolve. And I will try to use the ability to maintain such discussions as a good reminder to ensure that I do not stretch the size of the team so far that maintaining healthy individual relationships is not possible.

Until then, I am okay with just never performing anything called “Performance Review” ever again.

Ordering Some Estimates… Did You Want Testing With That?

I have been participating in many of the discussions around software estimates for the past year or so. The #NoEstimates discussion has been quite a debate, and to be honest I get a lot of the points being made by both sides:

“We need estimates to secure our business agreements”

  • I completely agree that in some industries and markets, not providing an estimate will simply prevent deals from being made (I worked with commercial airlines and military… trust me it IS a show stopper. Projects span years and incremental investment (which I feel is a great model) is not something that this market is ready for)
  • Often when trying to decide between opportunities, providing an estimate in combination with a business opportunity summary is how decisions are made

“You call them estimates, but you ink them in as deadlines”

  • I agree that the current use of estimates (based on my own observations) as a tool for sizing and planning projects truly sucks.
  • I have personally witnessed time and time again how estimates are converted into delivery plans, and inked into contracts.
  • I have seen how teams are demoralized when they are attacked for altering estimates when new information emerges. “How did you get this so wrong?”

 

I found myself asking this question the other day. If you truly believe that you can estimate the work required for an upcoming project, and that your estimate can stand the test of time (in terms of scope, effort and expected value to the purchaser/investor/user)… then why would you need any testers? Or any testing at all for that matter?

Image

 

Now, I am sure that we have all witnessed estimates that get calculated with some sense of science. Some even consider “How much time is needed for PROPER testing?” (the magical mathematics for this is typically quite beautiful and impressive. Much like unicorns) Lets pause however and consider why we are testing in the first place.

  • We are hoping to learn about the system under test.
  • We want to deliver additional information to the team about the behaviour of the system under test.
  • We consider it essential to better understand what it is we just built, and to explore the many ways that a user might interact with the system.
  • We are concerned that once we get something the way we want it, further development might destabilize it.
  • We are hitting a new market and are afraid about performance given new conditions and scale.
  • We are trying something new and honestly we are both excited and scared.
  • We just expect the unexpected.

Since I have already opened this can of worms, I feel that I might as well extend this concept to getting iterative feedback from users, demonstrations to investors/stakeholder and even code reviews. Like testing, these are things that we feel strongly about as “Really good things to do” when the desire exists within the team to create something great and something to be really proud of. They are all excellent sources of feedback and information to constantly revisit our existing plan and adapt as we go. Smart people can do amazing things if you keep providing them better information.

So, for those who agree that testing is intended to introduce and uncover new information that cannot honestly be precisely predicted (or therefore estimated) and that where this new information will most likely add to (or alter) the planned work, then what was that first estimate about? Why do you trust it? How did you estimate unknown discoveries at unknown junctures within the project? Why are you willing to sign a contract and commit (often with penalties) to it?

For me, I think the next time that I am in a discussion where estimates are being used to plan delivery dates, I might just ask that simple question: “So can I just confirm… you DON’T want any testing with that?”

Is test management wrong?

Is test management wrong?.

Well worth the read. I agree with many aspects of what Alister Scott is saying. The transition is tough for many established groups (silos?) to accept. It is even harder for those (like me) who have the titles that are most directly impacted. When the way we execute our project changes for the better, the resistance to give up control is often the biggest hurdle.

A New Leadership Model: What if Managers Could not Publish or Present?

Untitled by Keith Haring

Untitled by Keith Haring

I know. It sounds ridiculous. It also sounds near impossible to implement when first proposed. So instead, let’s first imagine that we completely ignore the “how do we get there?” problem and we instead jump immediately to imagine this state. We will just assume that the years of culture change have been successful.

To be clear, what I am proposing here is a corporate culture where the individuals in the company that are responsible for managing and growing teams are fundamentally not allowed to:

  • internally publish documents
  • develop or deliver presentations (internally or even to customers)
  • assemble reports
  • design dashboards
  • lead training

In this model, how would teams be organized? What would the interactions between peers be? How about the interaction and communication between organizations? Most importantly, could this be a good thing? It would most certainly be a dramatic change.

In this model, the “people manager” role transitions to focus on three elements of leadership:

  1. Owning responsibility for the team’s involvement in organizational strategy (not to be confused with establishing strategy).
  2. Building an environment that empowers the team members to grow, learn, teach and in turn lead.
  3. Enabling communication across teams teams and departments to facilitate the common understanding of shared, unique and complimentary goals.

I had planned to go into greater detail in this posting, but to be fair, I strongly feel that an interactive discussion about the feasibility/benefit of such a model in a specific organization is far more beneficial than a generic description. This would allow individuals to hypothesize with existing business needs, existing organizational relationships and knowledge of specific talented individuals. I will however present some of my thoughts on why this overly simple “no publishing rule” for managers might work.

Being the Coach, Not the Captain

The definition of coach is one that has been far too open to interpretation. Quickly borrowing terminology from team sports, the coach primarily focuses on game preparation. They work with the team to help build the skills/chemistry/knowledge needed to help them succeed on the field where the game is played. The captain on the other hand typically can be counted on to lead the team during the game. They are the player that the team looks to for predictive and reactive guidance. They think fast and  they can act quickly. (A great team has more than one person willing to step up and accept this role when called upon)

With this in mind, in many teams it is often the most creative and effective thinkers that elevate to the level of manager. Extending the sports analogy, they were effectively captains. They shined in time of crisis, and stood out as the clear star within a team. It is only natural then that the very skills that garnered attention would then become the foundation for their mode of operation. They would find it natural to continue applying these skills to identify opportunity, develop strategy, and then present/teach this to their team(s) as a vision.

The learning curve for former captains to become coaches is one that can be quite steep. As an individual contributor, the captain was in much more control of how he or she was evaluated. The temptation is understandable to maintain some of that control.

Now to be fair, for some captains this transition to coach is very natural. They enjoy empowering others. They enjoy building harmony and strength across their teams. But how often are those attributes (coaching), part of what gets the individual noticed and promoted? How do you build teams so that these natural leaders step up to manage? How do you allow captains to continue growing and shining? I believe that it involves breaking the traditional model that depicts the move to “people manager” as a promotion, but rather the natural acceptance of the role for a coach.

Letting the Players Play

I would like to move back away from the team sports analogy, but will finish the thought. No matter what the strategy, it is the team that needs to understand it and be able to execute it on the field of play. They learn, and they practice.

With this in mind, this is the foundation of “the rule” I am suggesting. As long as managers draft, present, teach, report and generally represent strategy, the possibility exists still that they are needed to lead their team in the execution. If we imagine instead the idea that all media had to be authored or presented by the very people asked to execute and perform, it presents a very different relationship for the manager. Suddenly, the need for communication and congruence is immensely important. Trust in the team is a fundamental requirement. Priorities that would likely emerge as being paramount:

  • Training/education for team members beyond technical skills. Development of “soft skills” and collaborative methods become vital to success.
  • Continuous sharing of corporate strategy and direction to ensure that the individuals understand how their involvement contributes and depends on larger objectives
  • Direct communication with supportive, partnering and dependent teams is needed on an ongoing basis.

Asking the team to own the authoring and presenting all methods of communication and education effectively requires that the very people doing the work to the appreciate (or at least understand) the intended value and teach others.

Who is the Next Manager?

In many ways, I have not really presented anything new about organizational dynamics. The only real change is this one rule of no publishing or presenting. (To clarify, my model would more likely imply an accepted and adopted approach rather than a rule, but for the sake of simplicity I have called it a rule) Why do I think this is actually something interesting or of value? What changes?

The idea I am considering  here involves building a framework that helps us move away from the premise that managing teams is a natural career advancement for our star individual performers. Where the role of manager (or leader) now is clearly seen as a role where the team is supported, educated, enriched and encouraged. Organizationally, the size and ratio of teams to manager then gets defined by the agreed upon needs of the teams involved in meeting corporate objectives. The desire to become a team manager would fall to those who instead look to build, support and grow great teams. They would want to find the next great stars, and the next great leaders. They would want to work collaboratively with other team leaders to encourage movement across teams to learn from one another.

But What About the Ugly?

I posted this thought in the form of a question. It is because the idea is really days old. It is not fully thought out. Even while writing this, there are obvious questions worth asking when considering this type of model. If you accept the notion that team managers are required to own responsibility for the performance of their teams, and to account for budget, team growth, team reduction, salaries… then can such a model possibly work? I could easily propose a model where standardized evaluations do not exist and alternate methods of compensation exist, (I would even go so far as to admit that I have some ideas about these) but this takes us into a near infinite series of organizational dynamics.  No matter how you look at it, the model that I proposed here completely ignores the transition that is needed to get there. This very important consideration could very well be the show stopper that allows us to conclude that this model is not feasible.

This is likely why I chose to leave it out. I like dreaming. I like alternate visions. I enjoy imagining how something could work, since this provides me with the ability to decide if the idea is a good and worth exploring. When we find ideas that we like and seem worthwhile, suddenly we find a way to compromise to achieve aspects of the benefits.

So with this in mind, what if this model were adopted? What else would need to change? I have no doubt that it could work, but in the end, would it be better or would it introduce aspects of dysfunction that exceed the benefit?

It begins….

Let’s be clear. I love the relationships that can be formed by software testers. When we focus our efforts on empathy and relationship building, we are in a position to help everyone around us be great. Technically, we provide skills and techniques that can help designers, developers, product managers… everyone who has a role to play in the ideation and creation of software products. We can truly be a developer’s best friend. Step one is making sure that they know this. Start today.