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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

We (Only) Need More Leadership


The other day I was discussing qualities of management in a specific organization. Well, it seems I’m doing that every couple of days or so – does it mean there’s something wrong with me? Anyway my point was the focus should be set on making true leaders out of managers as the organization hadn’t that magic infinite source of leadership (and every other soft skill managers would eventually need), which can be used anytime by managerial peons.

I thought I was oh so brilliant, but what I got instead of words of praise and cold beer was rebuttal. What was I thinking? Should the organization purely focus on covering short supply of leadership? And what about other stuff, namely technical excellence and organizational skills?

Well, I kind of have a magic trick. Solve the problems with your management and then you’ll see how teams are solving other issues. Where’s the magic? For most technical and organizational issues there are solutions teams already know and the only real problem is they don’t have power whatsoever to implement the solution. Now, give a team a good leader who would empower them to improve things and voila, all problems solved. Um, have I just used the word ‘empower’?

You might have heard about self-organizing teams. The basic difference between self-organizing and dull, ordinary teams is that the former are allowed and even encouraged to solve their issues. And why typically dull, ordinary teams don’t do that? Usually because their managers don’t allow them to do so.

So the first problem you should be working on is the one connected with your managers. They might be great technical folks who do decent job with organizing work of their teams, but as long as they suck as leaders you’re nowhere close to home.

And yes, you’re right. If they want to become leaders they have to work hard on their leadership which basically means they will be sacrificing their technical skills, to take the most obvious example. And that’s damn awesome if you ask me. I’m yet to see a team which wouldn’t manage when its manager stops doing any technical work at all. And I’m yet to see a team which would not advance when its manager improves their leadership skills.

If you want to say that managers should have decent knowledge in the areas which their teams specialize in, I’m with you. But they most likely already have that knowledge and they won’t automatically lose it as a tradeoff of gaining another level in people skills. I mean they won’t rock as techies anymore but as long as we have the same understanding of the word “decent” they will manage.

Pretty much the same pattern works with organizational skills.

If a manager lacks either technical or organizational skills, a team would probably cover those weaknesses. The area which team won’t cover is leadership along with other so called people skills. While I understand the role of a manager as a combination of people, technical and organizational skills I consider the first one as crucial. You get other two on a decent level in the package as long as you don’t promote complete jerks to managerial positions.

And even if you don’t get technical and organizational skills on proper level the team should cover those weaknesses for their leader. That is, as long as they consider her as a leader.

in: team management

6 comments… add one

  • jfbauer October 26, 2010, 3:50 am

    What? Managers subjugating decisions to their teams? What would managers do in between meetings and creating colorful PPTs, charts and graphs? I am speaking sarcastically here of course.

    If you are a new manager or you have a new team, try to focus your energies on how to, yes, empower your team members to do what technical work they are supposed to do. Are they getting 15 concurrent requests all at the same time? Start working on an external way to have the business prioritize their work so the individual can more cleanly go from one task to the next sequentially. Are they feeling pressure to “get the job done” and they have only just started working on a task? Help them estimate their work from the start so external expectations can be managed for them. [I wrote in depth on this topic here: http://bit.ly/9BFf18 ]

    Indeed “If a manager lacks either technical or organizational skills, a team would probably cover those weaknesses.” There is someone on the team who just hates disorganization and will be willing to step up and fill in enough to keep the rest of the team moving forward.

    Good stuff again Pawel on the intertwined roles of management and leadership in technical teams.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 26, 2010, 5:12 am

    Well, they might start another office war with another department or something. It always takes a lot of time.

    I often see fear of letting teams decide on different things. And of course we shouldn’t let self-organize teams which aren’t mature enough, but usually it’s not about teams’ maturity but about lack of trust. If a manger doesn’t trust his team how could he expect his team to trust him? And if there’s no trust between the team and the manager he won’t be considered as a leader. No way.

    Without leadership in place the team will have little incentive to help the manager to improve things and a negative feedback loop is closed.

    Then you start working under pressure of time, exactly as described in your post. And then neither technical expertise nor organizational skills are enough to solve the problem.

  • jfbauer October 26, 2010, 5:55 am

    My immediate reaction to your follow-up comment is in a word … indeed!

    The element of trust is indeed critical. It takes time to establish that trust between manager and team/team members. Plus, trust is, as you say, a two-way street. I can think of ways to quickly derail trust building, but I can’t really think of immediate ways to accelerate building trust between people beyond investing the time to consistently deliver mutual support.

  • Daniel Brath October 31, 2010, 1:20 am

    I completely agree with Pawel on this topic, but why is it that people are not encouraged to focus on something like leadership during their education. Most of the people who take a 5-year degree should expect to become a leader at one point of their career. Most people who have been leaders during their career would probably agree that it takes more than technical skill to achieve success as a leader.
    There are plenty of opportunities to challenge yourself and find out who you are as a leader during studies and I honestly think that people tend to underestimate the importance and power of being a great leader.

  • Pawel Brodzinski October 31, 2010, 2:11 am

    Thread about education is one i’m really interested in. I believe we aren’t prepared well in many areas which we have to face during our professional lives, leadership being one of the most significant ones.

    I tend to think that typical program of studies isn’t constructed to teach us so called soft skills. This however doesn’t explain why we also aren’t taught managing projects which is also one of things most of people would do in this way or another during their professional lives.

    Unfortunately I don’t have any answers here.

  • murali November 13, 2010, 6:57 pm

    Rebuttal should be rebutted. If the team doesnt have good solutioning skills – technical or otherwise, a good manager will not plug these gaps by becoming the architect or the SME. He will find those skills and augment the team.

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