Friday, February 27, 2009

Techies and Their Managers

I work in an organization of professionals that are very intelligent, well educated, and good at what they do. That does not mean that it is problem free, but it is generally a decent work environment.

Most (not all) of the managers in this organization originally worked in the same kind of technical positions that they currently manage. With rare exception, these techies-cum-managers change their nature one they are in management.

To the techies, this change is Dilbert-esque or even sinister. It seems as if their once-human colleagues have morphed to become one of ‘THEM.’ In fact, these managers have taken on a new role that requires them to view the business quite differently.

Interestingly, many of the highly intelligent technical folks have difficulty comprehending the leadership view. They feel that their general intelligence level automatically translates to an objective view of the business. Often, however, they are so deep in their specialty niches that they cannot bring themselves to grasp the broader view. They can hear and say the words, but the meaning is apparently lost on them.

This was evident in a recent meeting. A group of technical professionals was very upset about being required to use an application that their analysis revealed was inferior to the one they currently use for the same purpose. Mostly, they felt that management had ignored their professional concerns in the decision making process. In fact, management was simply considering a much broader set of goals.

This does not mean that management was right or that they handled the situation properly. But when the bigger picture became more apparent, many of the technical people seemed incapable of comprehending it, preferring instead to keep looking at only a small piece.

My master degree program was half computer science and half MBA. Having received fairly deep training in both technical matters and management theory, and having worked at various levels in different organizations, I have some appreciation for the demands, views, and incentives that drive both technical professionals and their managers.

Management is not nearly as idiotic as depicted in Dilbert. But Dilbert would not be so consistently humorous were there not some truth behind the portrayal. Managers too can become so distanced from the functions they manage that they do a lousy job of leading. Sometimes they are placed in situations with competing demands. The result can seem bizarre to the workers.

In reality, the techies and the managers are simply responding to different sets of incentives. Techies are looking out for what they believe to be best for the business from their view inside their niche, while managers are trying to do what is best from a different vantage point. The former techies that remain too deep in technical pursuits usually make poor managers, because they never rise to the business view required of a manager.

Due to the incentives and viewpoints inherent in the jobs being done, most professional technical organizations simply cannot function without someone taking the leadership role and understanding the leadership perspective.

I don’t expect my technical colleagues to blindly accept anything management does. Heaven knows that my organization’s managers have made their fair share of blunders. But it would be nice if my associates would at least take a step back when management appears to do something harebrained and realize that there are probably bigger issues at stake, as opposed to automatically erecting the us-vs.-them wall.


Jesse Harris said...

Part of the problem is that a lot of managers do not explain how the decision was reached or why it's actually a good idea despite how it may appear. It's easier to accept a decision, even begrudgingly, if you can understand the logic behind it.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Jesse, I'm in complete agreement with you on that. Managers too often do a lousy job of clearly communicating with their teams. But it's not always as simple as it seems.

For example, there are times when managers are can't fully explain at the moment because doing so would violate an agreement or cause other problems. Also, occasionally broader purposes can be beyond the worker view to the point that no amount of explanation is satisfactory.

In the instance I cited, many of the techies in the room seemingly couldn't grasp the business view, although, it seemed at least relatively reasonable to me. Others were determined to believe the worst about management, no matter the explanation given.

Of course, I have seen other situations where a decision was made for purely political reasons. "We know X isn't what you want, but we went along with it in order to get Y." Sometimes this can't be said, because Y is nothing more than an ego boosting or empire building matter.