There Is No Objective Management

The position of the manager is subjective and context-dependent. He is either inside the system, or outside in the environment, but he is never an objective observer.

The manager is traditionally depicted as the commander of an army, the captain of a ship, or the leader at the top of a hierarchy of “followers”. There is some usefulness in these metaphors. But when applied to management of software teams they are like candy sticks: hard to resist, good for waving at others, but bad for your health, and with a tendency to break.

When we realize that we’re working with complex adaptive systems, we can see that the manager is either part of the system or part of the environment, which depends on how the manager perceives a situation. Boundaries of complex systems are fuzzy. You can choose where to draw them, depending on the way you want to address problems. However, the manager is never an objective and independent observer. This mistake is often made by those who treat teams as if they are created, like cars and clocks and factory lines. And candy sticks.

Management in the System

Manager-inside Software teams are not built. They are grown, in the same way as cities, beehives, brains, and poodles are grown. Managers can sometimes consider themselves to be part of the system they are growing. In many ways they are similar to the other parts, but they have a few “special powers” that the others don’t have. Like the mayor in a city, the queen bee in a beehive, the neocortex in a brain and the stem cells in a poodle.

Management in the Environment

Manager-outside On the other hand, when managers don’t participate in what’s going on in the system they can consider themselves to be part of the environment. They can influence and steer what goes on in a team (sometimes using their “special powers”) by tweaking the environment, modifying boundaries, and changing resources. This causes the system to respond and adapt.

Different Perspectives

A manager who socializes with team members, discusses their projects, and suggests ways for them to improve, might be acting as part of the system. A manager who selects projects, decides which people are on the team, and defines the types of customer contracts, might be acting as part of the environment. Both perspectives can be applied at the same time, because borders of social systems are fuzzy.

Either way, the position of the manager is subjective and context-dependent. He is either inside the system, or outside in the environment, but he is never an objective observer. The message may not be sweet, but for growing a healthy organization it is much more effective.

This text is an excerpt from the Agile Management course, available from March 2011 in various countries.

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  • http://www.financialagile.com/ Jamie

    I think you get a problem when the manager thinks, or wants to be, an empiricist, wants to set something up, watch it run, and reflect *after* completion…
    What the manager believes matters. http://tiny.cc/tnhjj

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jfbauer Jfbauer

    A manager is indeed not an objective observer. In any context a manager is approaching the topic at hand biased by a variety of positions. A Position such as a biased defense of a team member even before a discussion of team member’s claimed poor performance begins. A position such as a desire to solve a new challenge with technology within the manager’s domain before even a discussion of the business requirements begins. Or potentially the opposite position of avoiding the linking of the manager’s technology domain to a troublesome internal business client in order to avoid the team’s involvement in working for that client. One would like to think managers are true stewards of the company’s goals and objectives, but corporate hierarchies foster this inherent bias.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/galleman Glen B. Alleman

    Jurgen,
    In our defense domain there is a hierarchy of “management.” The Program Manager and deputies oversee the work. A Control Account Manager (CAM) looks after all the work in the Control Accounts. The Work Package Managers look after the tasks in the Work Package.
    The selection of the Program Manager starts during the proposal. The PM is usually “named” in the proposal. The CAMs are chosen for their ability to manage the “business side” of the work and the technical – in that order.
    The functional members of the program are selected for their skills, experience, and past performance. The “teams” are then built around the CAM, since the CAM is singularly accountable for the delivery of the work in the Control Account.
    The blend of self organizing and externally directed works well when using other peoples money (government money) on programs that have high risk and high reward. Rarely are there defense programs that have low risk and moderate reward. Defense programs build “break through” stuff. Normal stuff is already in use – just buy more.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/galleman Glen B. Alleman

    Jurgen,
    In our defense domain there is a hierarchy of “management.” The Program Manager and deputies oversee the work starting with the business process (cost, schedule, and technical performance).
    A Control Account Manager (CAM) looks after all the work in the Control Accounts. She is focused on the business but has technical capabilities. The Work Package Managers look after the tasks in the Work Package. They are technically focused. They usually selected the technical staff.
    The selection of the Program Manager starts during the proposal. The PM is usually “named” in the proposal. The CAMs are chosen for their ability to manage the “business side” of the work and the technical – in that order.
    The functional members of the program are selected for their skills, experience, and past performance. The “teams” are then built around the CAM, since the CAM is singularly accountable for the delivery of the work in the Control Account.
    The blend of self organizing and externally directed works well when using other peoples money (government money) on programs that have high risk and high reward. Rarely are there defense programs that have low risk and moderate reward. Defense programs build “break through” stuff. Normal stuff is already in use – just buy more.

  • http://www.essenceoftheba.com steve blais

    Has management gotten so complex and involved that we now need multiple managers to manage a single project? Or is the assignment of business manager, functional manager, personnel manager, and other managers a function of the size of the project?

  • http://www.essenceoftheba.com steve blais

    Given that a project manager is not – theoretically – a member of the project team, the project manager has a more objective viewpoint of the project than the team members who are immersed in the details and decisions. Unfortunately, most project managers don’t take that opportunity to step back and get a bigger picture but choose to stay in the trenches where they are more comfortable.
    However, total objectivity by a project manager might be dangerous. Ultimately, assuming the project manager has vetted the project sufficiently, the project manager is the spokesperson and champion of the project on behalf of the team to the rest of the organization and the world. That doesn’t mean blind cheer-leading, but it does mean strong subjective support.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    I don’t understand your reply. There is nothing in my blog post describing multiple managers. And it’s not about project management either.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Glen, Steve, thanks. But with management I always mean line management. Never project management. I’m talking about the manager of the team, not the manager of the project. I believe it’s an important difference.

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