In response to one of my articles on management, Sergey Timanin tweeted:
“the work [of managers includes] steering the organisation in times of change might be the most invisible to tech people and most under appreciated”
I agree completely with Sergey, many of the changes in and around organizations are invisible to those doing the work. Indeed much, if not most, management work is invisible to those outside the management circle. Does that make it worthless?
Programmers often just want to get on with programming and there's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes there are changes swirling around. Left unmanaged these changes have the potential to sow uncertainty, diminish trust and disrupt work.
In my nature of management post, I noted that part of the management role is to interface the fuzzy, unknown, unpredicted world to the very predictable world of machines. This is where Sergey’s observation fits in: the world out that is in a constant state of flux — allow too much of that flux into the work environment and well...you won’t get much work done!
Managers Seen as "Firewalls" or "Gatekeepers"
Managers are sometimes described as “Firewalls": they shield workers from interruptions and uncertainties that will disrupt their work. This can certainly be true.
But for every programmer who values their manager as a firewall, there is another who believes the manager is unnecessarily filtering — perhaps even controlling or hiding — the information that reaches them and that managers should get out the way and let the information flow directly. These people see managers not as Firewalls but as Gatekeepers who (unnecessarily) restrict the flow of information.
It's easy to see how these two differing points of view can be held by two individual programmers about the same manager in the same company. The distinction between Firewall and Gatekeeper is subjective. This is where managers require skill and intuition, both to know what information to hide or share and how to communicate with different people with different expectations.
Managers can Fan the Flames of Positive Change
Sergey’s tweet also hints at another responsibility that is often laid at managers' doors: bringing about change. Particularly in the work environment.
I would see this as part of a manager's role but I would also see this as part of everyone's role. A good manager should encourage the ideas of others and help them bring about changes they want to see.
While on occasion a manager may need to discourage — or even prohibit a proposed change — managers should have a role to play in bringing about change for the better. However, change is usually best when it is bottom-up rather than top-down. I see a manager's role more as fanning the flames of positive change and building momentum rather than rolling-out a series of changes decided on behind closed doors.
Traditionally, management’s role has been seen as creating change below in order to satisfy the requests from above — top-down change with the manager as the instrument of delivery. Certainly this is sometimes true. Those who subscribe to the view that strategy is planning would subscribe to that view.
I believe some strategy is certainly decided at the top and “deployed” or “rolled out” down the organization but much strategy is bottom-up. It is emergent, the result of what happens on the ground, learning at the coalface, how this information is interpreted higher up.
Strategy is both emergent and retrospective. Strategy is a story we tell afterwards to make sense of what happened and align future actions. In this case, the manager’s role is as much about telling stories and passing strategy up the hierarchy as down.