Basic Management: What We Do

On a fundamental level, what managers do is pretty simple:

• Ask what needs to be done.
• Plan a course of action.
• Find resources to accomplish that plan.
• Direct implementation of the plan.
• Evaluate the results.
• Learn.

And yet, despite this simplicity, there is a cottage industry of management books designed to demystify the process. If it’s really so easy, why do we need all of this advice? And we’ve all worked for craptastic managers (and those of us with a modicum of self-awareness will admit we’ve BEEN craptastic managers)… did they just not read the right books?

The answer is that management is a relatively recent field of study, unlike manufacturing or agriculture or even marketing, and though superior American management techniques did a lot to win World War Two and the Cold War, there is still a lot of room for subjectivity. There are many different ways to accomplish each of the bullet points above, and plenty of systems and subsets to consider. A big part of “find the resources” is finding the right people for a plan, and once personalities are involved, you have to be a leader in addition to a manager… an entirely different Twinkie.

The farther up the management chain you go, the more abstract things seem to get. Get far enough into the ether, and your language starts to transmogrify and next thing you know, you’re talking about synergy, the dominant paradigm, equalizing complexities for the benefit of the enterprise, and establishing positives for stakeholders to maximize their vision. Congratulations, you’ve summited Mount Craptastic.

Maybe until you get there, however, it’s better to focus on these six steps:

1) Ask what needs to be done.

The question might be directed at your supervisor, but often it’s directed inward. What’s best for the company, the mission, the overall goal? Sometimes it might be something you actually want to work on, but many times what you want isn’t what really needs to happen. Developing a personnel policy to deal with subtle, growing harassment issues isn’t exactly as fun as planning the holiday party, but it will probably be more effective at improving morale. You have to consider time ranges (short- medium- and long-term) and stakeholders (your boss, the company, the shareholders, your co-workers, your subordinates, the customers, etc.) when deciding what needs to be done.

2) Plan a course of action.

Leadership involves developing a vision, motivating people, and taking risks. Managers can be Leaders, but should not lose sight of their primary task. Management is about organizing and solving problems. So once you’ve determined what needs to be done, you must figure out the best way to accomplish that goal. My earlier post about “Fast, Good, Cheap” comes into play here, as does consensus among stakeholders. You can develop a genius plan, but if you don’t have the ideal resources for it, the plan will need finesse and plenty of input. Your goal in developing a course of action- definite steps to accomplish the objective- should be to create something that everyone agrees with or at least supports, is within your means, and can happen on time. So planning isn’t just you behind your desk being a genius. It’s working your relationships, asking for resources and key information, and being as clear and definite as possible.

One of my favorite steps in a course of action is something like “develop new revenue streams”. It appears like this:

1) Introduce concept at staff meeting and gather feedback.
2) Assign a subcommittee to study minimum financial requirements.
3) Develop new revenue streams.
4) Design department creates a model.
5) Model introduced at general meeting.
6) Department heads hold separate meetings to discuss with staff.

I refer to step 3 as “magic happens”. Sure, you can’t be crazy specific about every step, but “develop new revenue streams” is a GOAL, something which requires a course of action all its own. You can’t just go to the store and say “I’d like a revenue stream, please.” Try to make the steps of your plan actionable.

3) Find resources to accomplish the plan.

Most of the time, your resources are people, materials, time, and money. A lot of people will tell you systems, tools, structure, political will, and any number of other buzzwords are resources, but I have found it usually boils down to The Big Four. Further, if you have all the right people, all the perfect materials, as much time as you want, and unlimited funds… you are currently dreaming and should wake up. You should ask for a raise. You should watch out, because someone is looking to steal your resources.

Again, Fast-Good-Cheap. Finding resources means achieving that balance by negotiating with people. If you’ve planned correctly, by involving as many key stakeholders as possible, resources will be easier to come by because everyone wants the plan to succeed. But you, and they, have to be willing to go back a step and change the course of action if the resources just aren’t there, for instance, if you’ve planned to build it out of aluminum but prices have skyrocketed recently.

Good managers get creative with resources, and with negotiations. In response to a deadline I felt was nearly impossible, I didn’t say no, but I asked for extra staffing; specifically, three top welders at work on other people’s pet projects. And extra shop space. And extra money to get a rush delivery on the materials. This focused the mind of the person setting the deadline, and I got an extra ten days.

4) Direct implementation of the plan.

A manager’s leadership skills really come into play once the plan is in place and the resources have been secured. Setting aside motivation, delegation, and conflict resolution for now, the real management side of implementation is directing resources and communicating. You can’t and shouldn’t rely on everyone to see the big picture, because their focus should be on the task right in front of them. It’s up to you to anticipate needs and get the right people on the right job with the right stuff. It takes practice, but the more you can anticipate a given need, the smoother your plan will be implemented.

The larger the plan, the less likely it is to be implemented without some adjustment. The best managers realize this and don’t freak out about it. I am not among them, but I’m working on it. What was wrong with my plan? Why didn’t I anticipate that polar bear? WHY AM I SUCH A BAD MOTIVATOR!?!?!

Communication is a key to getting it done. Not just communicating as direction, but in updating stakeholders as well. If you are in the middle of implementing your plan and things are going so badly you need to change the overall goal, then you are probably in trouble. But if it looks like you’ll be done Thursday instead of Tuesday, sometimes going back to the Time Lord and advising her will clarify the plan. Maybe it will turn out Thursday is fine… or maybe you need to assign more people because the Secretary is coming Wednesday and it’s her welcome party we’re talking about.

5) Evaluate the results.

Two things that managers do which are big mistakes: their plan goes to hell and they immediately jump to Evaluate before the plan is even finished, or they successfully implement their plan, give everyone a high-five, and start the next project, skipping Evaluate.

In the first case, freaking out (as I mentioned in Step 4) doesn’t help you get it done. An even worse scenario is someone who sees that failure is imminent and begins blaming, sacrificing, sabotaging, or otherwise positioning themselves to not take a hit. This is known as Cover Your Ass, but it’s really the result of premature Evaluation. After all, if everyone is on task, the failure should be a complete surprise, if it happens at all.

And if you’ve never been the victim of a manager or co-worker sacrificing you, you haven’t been around long enough. It happened to me when I was 19, and the source was someone I least expected.

So once the goal is completed, carve out a little time to Evaluate. What went right, or wrong? Could various surprises have been anticipated? Write an after-action report, even if just for yourself. I like to include topics like:

• I wish I’d had…
• I’m glad I had…
• Who was there
• How much time was spent
• Unforeseeable (random) complications
• Better practices
• Unnecessary practices

Just touching on unnecessary practices… this is essentially Opportunity Cost. If your structural materials were methodically wrapped in bubble wrap, padding, and wooden crates to protect their finishes, that’s what I mean. The shop could have not spent that packaging time, the materials cost could have been saved, and both the time and money could have been directed elsewhere.

It’s important to look not just at symptoms, but at root causes as well. This is where leadership plays a role. Evaluation isn’t blame, it’s evaluation. Blame is narrow and personal, evaluation is professional. You can blame Melissa for not bringing a forklift to the party, but if you evaluate how the need for a forklift was missed, you might find out the money for it was wasted elsewhere, or the shop underestimated the weight and no one thought a forklift was needed. Of course, if Melissa was told to order a forklift and forgot, you can blame her. But maybe you want to follow up and find out why she blew it.

6) Learn.

Sometimes learning is just reinforcing what went right, other times it’s fine-tuning practices to get just a little more productivity or profit. In more severe circumstances, the lesson could be “we should never emphasize Cheap so much again.”

In every case, learning what should have been done isn’t enough. Try to extrapolate:

Next time, remind Melissa to order a forklift.” That’s a shallow lesson.

For things like forklifts, a second person should be assigned to verify the order”. That’s good stuff.

During the planning phase, identify components that are mission-critical and impossible to improvise. Assign appropriate redundancies (verification of orders, backups) and make sure everyone is aware of which components are mission-critical.” Okay, gold star.

A really slick manager doesn’t just learn from his or her own projects. Network, ask around, be candid about your failures and humbly excited by surprise successes. Note, just saying “I planned that, it succeeded, I’m awesome!” is tedious. But “hey, we ran out of Razoncrantz flibjibs and had to use coconuts and hammers instead… and it actually worked better at half the cost!” is a winner.

One final thought:

Try to read as much as possible and always with an eye toward evaluating and learning. When things make the news, try to see the planning involved. Don’t accept statements like “it’s a tragedy that man was pushed onto the subway tracks and killed” at face value. If you’ve been to London, or any airport with a train, you may have noticed the stations with glass sliding doors which only open when the train is in the station. It’s unfortunate that a man was killed in New York City last week, but the technology exists to have prevented it. Somewhere along the line, a cost/benefit decision was made that balanced that technology against the 150 or so people hit on the tracks (and 50 deaths) annually.


About ernestwhile

I live in New York City. I built a world of Lego bricks, colorful and simple and foreign. I've been picking it apart ever since.
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2 Responses to Basic Management: What We Do

  1. Marian Green says:

    I think I need you to come manage me. 🙂

  2. ernestwhile says:

    You’re so…. YOU. Damn.

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