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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Dealing with Disconnection

Here’s the thing: top management is often disconnected with things happening down there in their companies. What more, they usually aren’t aware of the fact. My wild guess is that even if they were, most of them wouldn’t care.

At first I was surprised, but after a second thought it does make some sense. These guys focus on different things, have different knowledge about company, look at things from different perspective and have different tasks. Their disconnection is understandable. Which doesn’t mean it’s any good.

Personally I always try to keep in touch with real people doing real work and I think I’m pretty successful. I use a few techniques.

• Talk with people more. Usually top managers talk to people, not with people. And even when it happens they do the latter it’s usually limited to water cooler chit chat.

• Find time to listen. If people bother to come to you with a problem you should be instantly available. Once discouraged they won’t come any more and you won’t know about many problems in your organization.

• Shorten a distance. Manager has a difficult task if he wants to become friends with people he manages, but that doesn’t me he shouldn’t try to become more likeable. People will respond telling you more.

• Encourage people to share their problems with you. People are naturally afraid of their bosses. Try to change it.

• Do something about problems you know of. It’s not enough to listen. As far as you forget about the thing a second after a guy, who told you about problem, leaves your desk you could interrupt him yelling “I’m not listening” either way. Move your butt and fix the problem. Or at least try.

• Stop assuming you know better. Yes, you have better knowledge about some areas, but on the other hand your people know better about things you aren’t aware of. None of you knows better, you just have different positions.

• Exchange information. You tell people more and people respond in the same manner. Treating your teams as mindless golems who don’t have to know anything isn’t the best strategy here.

• Don’t spend too much time with execs. When in Rome do as Romans do. The more time with other disconnected folks from the top of the organization the more disconnected you become.

If you look at a company as an outsider you can sometimes confront what is told about them officially with things you hear from insiders (e.g. friends). And it’s quite common you’ll see a disconnection between these two pictures. I felt exactly the same some time ago when I was listening to execs describing how their companies are innovative. I see the same problem when people tell me how their interviews went in companies they could cross-check with their friends working there. Do you see the same issue in your organizations?

in: communication, personal development, team management

12 comments… add one

  • lukaash February 14, 2009, 3:37 am

    Very good post Pawel, thanks! Unfortunately, many top managers don’t understand their role in organization and are unable or unwilling to admit this disconnection.

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 14, 2009, 4:09 am

    I would say that in the first place it’s about not being aware of the problem. If you see execs at office one day per week (as it happens now in one of my previous companies) they won’t know how things really look like even when they have best intentions.

  • Andrew Meyer February 15, 2009, 8:12 pm

    Pawel,

    you touch on an interesting subject and in the ideal world, executives would be able to do what you describe. In the world I’ve worked in at large companies (10,000+ people), you describe the problem accurately, but attribute this situation to the wrong reasons.

    Executives have very time constrained schedules and rarely ever know more about the details of what is happening than the people working for them. This is not a cut on executives, it is reality. Let me explain why I say this.

    When an someone comes into a company, they are brought in to do a particular thing. Maybe it’s technical, maybe its not, but at some level, junior employees are brought in to lay bricks. Determining who’s productive and who’s not is as easy as counting the number of bricks they lay.

    Our brick layer is productive and get’s promoted. He’s now managing 10 brick layers. It’s still very easy to determine if he’s productive. But now, let’s promote him one more time. He’s now managing 10 people who are in turn managing 10 other people. You can see it’s a little more difficult to judge productivity, but his job is still focused around laying bricks. He is in middle management and is still responsible to know about brick laying. But let’s promote him one more time.

    Now our man is an executive. One of his departments lays bricks, but he’s overseeing 5 other departments. One digs moats, another mines stones for the bricks, another ships the bricks, another handles the international taxes involved in importing bricks and exporting castles and then there’s this other god awful depart that does something called IT.

    Our executive might have experience in one area, brick laying, but he is responsible and really needs to focus his time and attention on the four other areas. And when people working for him come to him to make decision, they spend all their life in the details and give him a 5 minute summary from which he has to make decisions consequential to the business about an area where he’s had 5 minutes of preparation. And there are 10 other things going on that he needs to prepare for.

    Most executives would love nothing better than to be able to focus on things they know about and build deep relationships with people whose knowledge and dedication are crucial to the company. Unfortunately, that is not reality for executives in large companies that I’ve seen.

  • Josh February 15, 2009, 9:22 pm

    If you’re talking about management more than 3 levels away from individual contributors in the hierarchy, I think you are way off base.

    Most of what you have said applies well to first-level managers and even middle managers. The skills and focus required of managers at all levels are much different than the people who are actually doing the work for the customers.

    The way I see it, management is there to support employees, who are there to support customers. The organizational chart should start with the employees on top, leads, then managers, etc. Each level supports the one above it in one way or another.

    The best way for an executive to support their subordinates is NOT to understand the technical details of their work. The best thing they can do is eliminate obstacles for their directs, ensure harmony with other departments/subordinates, and lead them in alignment with corporate strategy.

    Apply that to all levels of management from the CEO down to the front lines, and you’ll have an effective management team.

    Enable the technical people. Encourage them. Recognize them. Empower them. That’s good management.

    Josh Nankivel
    pmStudent.com

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 16, 2009, 12:28 am

    Andrew,

    You’re right – writing the post I focused on small to medium companies where I see problem quite often. I agree that exec of 10000+ company shouldn’t know what exactly randomly taken person from his company does to pay the rent.

    However there are people who comes to you talking how innovative is their company or how employee-friendly it is etc. They believe their companies becomes innovative, employee-friendly or whatever just by stating so. When you look deeper it appears that company culture supports safe play and unhealthy competition between employees.

    Knowing nothing about company culture is a sin even for an executive of 10000+ company.

    But yes, I packed a bit too much to the post. Disconnection in smaller organizations and above problem are two different things.

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 16, 2009, 12:36 am

    Josh,

    It depends on a company size. I’ve seen that problem in companies where there are barely 2 tiers of management. Or even just one of them.

    Talking about big organization I made my point in answer to Andrew’s comment. I don’t expect executives will know all technical details of work done by every employee in their companies. But I expect them to know what is the company culture and how people react while working in that kind of environment. These are basics even for executives. Other way they bold statements and official messages do nothing else but harm morale.

    That’s disconnection too, but the other type. I should have split this to spearate posts I guess.

  • Elizabeth February 16, 2009, 12:15 pm

    In my old company we used to call this ‘management by walking around’. I agree with your other commentators, in that the more levels of management you have the harder this is, but it can certainly have benefits in smaller chunks of large organisations. Having said that, think about the impact on the subordinates – one of the worst things about management-types is that they often think they are helping when really it’s just interference!

  • Pawel Brodzinski February 16, 2009, 1:39 pm

    I’m far away from advising to manage by walking around. As far as people see their managers as reasonable persons they’ll talk with bosses much. That’s the goal – don’t try to be a pointy-haired boss who stops by to interrupt you asking how things are going and runs away before he can even hear your answer.

    Allow your people to bring their problems to you whenever they feel comfortable to talk. This is hard since being a manager it’s so easy to be busy all the time.

    Exploit moments like meetings when people aren’t focused on work anyway. Even watercooler chit chat can be useful as far as a manager have balls to talk about people’s problems with no preparation.

  • Andrew Meyer February 17, 2009, 8:49 pm

    Pawel,

    the more I think about your post on top management seeming disconnected, the more I believe there are good reasons for their separation. I believe there are at least three degrees of separation.

    http://alignmentinquiries.blogspot.com/2009/02/three-degrees-of-separation.html

  • Craig Brown February 20, 2009, 5:42 pm

    So let me run this by you all…

    Execiutives spend most of there time and money on running operations. But more and more of their work is falling to project teams.

    This is becasue organisations need to continually invest into systems and change initiatives that will support the organisation into the future.

    You can’t just look after today and forget tomorrow.

    As execuives sponsor projects, they are supposed to resolve critical risks and issues.

    If they cannot understand the issues they cannot do their sponsor role effectively.

    Of course this relies on the pm bringing the issues to light in a plain language way, but how many executives eyes glaze over when the IT folk walk into the room?

    How many are focusing in and questioning until they understand the issues deeply?

  • Anonymous February 20, 2009, 8:50 pm
  • Pawel Brodzinski February 23, 2009, 1:56 am

    Craig,

    That’s one of results of disconnection – lack of understanding the role executives should fulfill in specific situations (e.g. being sponsors of projects).

    Sometimes it goes even further when they know almost nothing about how their company works and what motivates/demotivates their employees so they can’t even say whether the organizations uses the potential it has.

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