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People are Strange


Managers. They're the light in the fridge: when the door is open their value can be seen. But when the door is closed ... well, who knows?

Johanna Rothman and Esther Derby reckon they have a good idea. And they aim to show, in the form of an extended story following one manager as he takes over an existing team with problems, the kinds of things that managers can do and do do and - if they're after a decent default starting point - should consider doing.

What their book, Behind Closed Doors, isn't - and doesn't claim to be - is the answer to every management problem. The cast of characters in the story represent some of the kinds of personalities you'll find yourself dealing with as a manager, but the depth of the scenarios covered is limited, the set of outcomes covered is generally positive, and the timescales covered are reasonably short.

Michael Lopp, in Managing Humans, implores managers to remember that their staff are chaotic beautiful snowflakes. Unique. Individual. Special. Jim Morrison just says, simply, brusquely, that people are strange. (And don't forget that managers are people, despite evidence to the contrary.)

Either way, it's on the manager to care to look and listen carefully and find ways to help those they manage to be the best that they can be in ways that suit them. Management books necessarily use archetypes as a practical way to give suggestions and share experiences, but those new to management especially should be wary of misinterpreting the stories as a how-to guide to be naively applied without consideration of the context.

What Behind Closed Doors also isn't, unlike so much writing on management, is dry, or full of heroistic aphorisms, or preachy. In fact, I found it an extremely easy read for several reasons: it's well-written; it's short; the story format helps the reader along; following a consistent story gives context to situations as the book progresses; sidebars and an appendix keep detail aside for later consumption; I'm familiar with work by both of these authors already; I'm a fan of Jerry Weinberg's writing on management and interpersonal relationships and this book owes much to his insights (he wrote the foreword here); I agree with much of the advice.

What I found myself wanting - and I'd buy Rothman and Derby's version of this like a shot - is more detailed versions of some of the dialogues in this book with commentary in the form of the internal monologues of the participants. I'd like to hear Sam, the manager, thinking though the options he has when trying to help Kevin to learn to delegate and understand how he chose the approach that he took. I'd like to hear Keven trying to work out what he thinks Sam's motives are and perhaps rejecting some of Sam's premises.  I'd also like to see a deeper focus on a specific relationship over an extended period of time, with failures, and techniques for rebuilding trust in the face of them.

But while I wait for that, here's a few quotes that I enjoyed, loosely grouped.

On the contexts in which management takes place:
Generally speaking, you can observe only the public behaviors of managers and how your managers interact with you. 
Sometimes people who have never been in a management role believe that managers can simply tell other people what to do and that’s that. 
The higher you are in the organization, the more other people magnify your reactions. 
Because managers amplify the work of others, the human costs of bad management can be even higher than the economic costs. 
Chaos hides problems—both with people and projects. When chaos recedes, problems emerge. 
The moral of this fable is: Focus on the funded work.
On making a technical contribution as a manager:
Some first-level managers still do some technical work, but they cannot assign themselves to the critical path.

It’s easier to know when technical work is complete than to know when management work is complete.

The more people you have in your group, the harder it is to make a technical contribution.

The payoff for delegation isn’t always immediate.

It takes courage to delegate.
On coaching:
You always have the option not to coach. You can choose to give your team member feedback (information about the past), without providing advice on options for future behavior.

Coaching doesn’t mean you rush in to solve the problem. Coaching helps the other person see more options and choose from them.

Coaching helps another person develop new capability with support.

And it goes without saying, but if you offer help, you need to follow through and provide the help requested, or people will be disinclined to ask again.

Helping someone think through the implications is the meat of coaching.
On team-building:
Jelled teams don’t happen by accident; teams jell when someone pays attention to building trust and commitment

Over time they build trust by exchanging and honoring commitments to each other.

Evaluations are different from feedback.

A one-on-one meeting is a great place to give appreciations.

[people] care whether the sincere appreciation is public or private ... It’s always appropriate to give appreciation for their contribution in a private meeting.

Each person on your team is unique. Some will need feedback on personal behaviors. Some will need help defining career development goals. Some will need coaching on how to influence across the organization.

Make sure the career development plans are integrated into the person’s day-to-day work. Otherwise, career development won’t happen.

"Career development" that happens only once a year is a sham.
On problem solving:
Our rule of thumb is to generate at least three reasonable options for solving any problem.

Even if you do choose the first option, you’ll understand the issue better after considering several options.

If you’re in a position to know a problem exists, consider this guideline for problem solving: the people who perform the work need to be part of the solution.

We often assume that deadlines are immutable, that a process is unchangeable, or that we have to solve something alone. Use thought experiments to remove artificial constraints,

It’s tempting to stop with the first reasonable option that pops into your head. But with any messy problem, generating multiple options leads to a richer understanding of the problem and potential solutions

Before you jump to solutions, collect some data. Data collection doesn’t have to be formal. Look for quantitative and qualitative data.

If you hear yourself saying, “We’ll just do blah, blah, blah,” Stop! “Just” is a keyword that lets you know it just won’t work.

When the root cause points to the original issue, it’s likely a system problem.
On managing:
Some people think management is all about the people, and some people think management is all about the tasks. But great management is about leading and developing people and managing tasks.

When managers are self-aware, they can respond to events rather than react in emotional outbursts.

And consider how your language affects your perspective and your ability to do your job.

Spending time with people is management work.

Part of being good at [Managing By Walking Around and Listening] is cultivating a curious mind, always observing, and questioning the meaning of what you see.

Great managers actively learn the craft of management.
Image: http://www.45cat.com/record/j45762

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