A manager's pitfall: striving to "add value"

There's this guy I work with who has a head the size of a small planet. In that head, dozens of design decisions big and small are made every day. Hundreds of options clash in his mind: which gives us the best trade-off between 3 different desirable things? Or 5 things, or 12, as the case may be?

And the thing about this guy is, he'll always make the decision, because you must, because deadlines. So not the kind of guy who just gets stuck in the multitude of possibilities, nope, not him. BUT he's normally unhappy with the decision, because you see, there wasn't time to REALLY evaluate it PROPERLY.

So we've been working with this guy, and he'd often ask me to help decide something at his end.

At first I'd ask about the details, and I'd propose solutions. And he didn't seem very happy with that, and eventually he got seriously pissed off. That was when I asked for a really big new feature, and he said it wasn't doable, "forget it."

So I said, "let's see though, what makes this so hard? Because I'm willing to throw a lot of it out and do just the most bare-bones version. Maybe then it'd be doable." So I was helping him, I was willing to ask for less, right? So I sure didn't expect the outcome, which was, he rather forcefully said he couldn't work like that any longer, with no stable specs and no real schedule and it's just him doing this after all AND…

At this point I sorta gathered from the form and substance of his speech that I should back off, RIGHT NOW. I said, "look, if you add this, all I can say is, the whole thing will be much better. But if it can't be done, fine, we can live without it. It's entirely your call and I have nothing to add."

And then he did it. Not some bare-bones, half-assed version, mind you, he did a pretty impressive full-blown thing. Then he redid it to make it better still.

So clever me thinks to myself, aha! I see, so what annoyed him wasn't how I asked for this huge feature in itself. What annoyed him was me demanding him to tell why it was hard, so I could break it up into parts, and tweak it, and basically solve this myself. He didn't really mind solving it if he did it, provided that

  • It was a request and not a "requirement" – because someone like me who doesn't really understand what goes into it has no right to just require it. You're not entitled to things you can't even comprehend, asshole!
  • …and I wouldn't try to "help" him by attempting to remedy my ignorance at his expense, questioning him on the details and then hastily "making it easier" for him, without thinking deeply enough whether making it easier was even NEEDED, and so  tricking him into making some pale no-good version of it! And then HE, because of ME, because of my impatient superficial "help", will have done a bad job! No, he doesn't want it easy, he wants it done right, so take a hike and give him time to decide what the right trade-off is, where to work harder and get more done and where to do less.

OK, so that's how it's gonna work from now on, I thought. From then on, if he wanted me to help him decide something, I'd just ask him what options he had in mind, regardless of what I could come up with myself. And I'd say this one sounds good.

This sort of worked, but he still didn't seem quite happy. And at one point he got pissed off and demanded explanations why I thought his option A was better than his option B. And I gave my explanations, and he thought they were shit. And I said, you know, A and B are both alright. Pick whichever you like better. "What?! So why did you just say that A was better?" "I dunno, I was wrong, you convinced me, it's a tough call."

Now I finally got it! So the way it works is, he thinks something through, for hours and days. If it's still a close call, he comes to me, whom he genuinely respects, and who's got the nominally higher seniority. What he comes to me for is superior wisdom. What he doesn't realize, out of excessive humility, is that there's no way I'll be better at deciding it than him, because he's better at it than me, and he's been thinking about it for so much longer.

And he only comes to me with what to him are the hardest things, guaranteeing that I won't be able to help, not really. So trying will just piss him off because I'll necessarily be suggesting some pretty dumb and superficial decision procedure, which is like helping Michelangelo with a sculpture by lending him a sledgehammer to just remove all that big chunk of stone over there.

So from then on I'd listen to his doubts, and agree that it's hard because of this thing we can't measure and that other thing we can't know, and say optimistically that either way I think it'll come out alright but it's his call, really. And he appeared very happy with my careful supervision of his work.

Bottom line for me was, I did very little hard thinking and a pretty cool project got done, I think, and the guy was happy, at least as much as he can be in this imperfect world. What's not to like?

The thing many of us managers don't like in such cases is, we seem to have added no value. Where's my chunk of value?

"He who does not work doesn't get to eat", they taught me in the USSR. "To capture value, add value" would be the translation of this slogan into MBA-speak. "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food", says the Holy Bible. None of this prepares you for a managerial role, where not doing shit is usually better than trying too hard.

A manager on a mission to add value usually thinks that it's his job to have all the good and important ideas. Corollary: someone else having many of the good and important ideas means you, the manager, are bad at your job. Will you accept this and suffer silently, or will you convince yourself that the report's ideas aren't that good? You don't want to find out. I say, don't put yourself in this situation in the first place, don't try hard to have the good ideas, look at your ability to not do shit in return for a nice compensation as both your new virtue and your immense luck, and relax.

If you're really addicted to making tangible contributions, I suggest to do what I've been doing in managerial roles – do some of the work yourself. Now, this is, without doubt, terribly irresponsible, because it makes me unavailable at unpredictable moments. When shit hits the fan and I must attend to it in my contributor's role, it prevents me from attending to the never-ending fan-hitting shit that the people I manage deal with.

There's also an advantage, and that is that I know how much things really suck in the trenches. And that's good, and anyone overseeing less than 50-100 people should stay current that way, I think. But don't "stay current" by working on urgent mission-critical shit (as I often do, because I suck.) Pick something unimportant instead.

Anyway, working myself is immensely better than trying to have the good ideas myself, I believe. This can result in not being there when they need me, but it never results in being there when they don't, which is worse.

If it's not the deep thinking, then what do managers do, except for sitting on their asses? I started putting it down, and it didn't come out very well, and the reason ought to be that, well, I don't really get it at this point. I'm a middling manager, whose main skill is attracting strong people and then taking credit for their work. And this one managerial skill compensates for the underdevelopment of the rest so well that they, unfortunately, remain underdeveloped.

So until my understanding of the managerial role improves, the one thing I will say here is, many people actually don't do shit most of the time and it's fine – say, lifeguards. Why do you need them? Just in case. So that's one way I think about myself - I'm like a lifeguard, except for the physique. Maybe I should use the time freed up by not having to do deep thinking to work on my pectoral muscles, so that one day I could star in "Programmer Watch", a "Baywatch" rip-off about R&D management. But I keep my hopes low on that one.

I say, quit "adding value", fellow managers. Just sit back and take credit for others' work. They'll thank you for it.

P.S. angry hamster – this one's for you.

12 comments ↓

#1 Norman Yarvin on 10.01.15 at 3:58 am

That is somewhat reminiscent of the Linux kernel "Management Style" document. (Documentation/ManagementStyle in the source tree)

#2 Shawn on 10.02.15 at 4:01 am

It sounds like you might not be in the right role. There are plenty of things a manager should be doing, but those things are not "things", but rather working with people. Move people from being 50% motivated to 100%. Find what they enjoy doing, give them more responsibility, find conferences they can attend. This won't take up all of your time. You can work on important things, just not urgent things.

#3 Bernd on 10.02.15 at 8:27 am

Wu wei is so underappreciated.

#4 Yossi Kreinin on 10.02.15 at 9:24 am

Bernd got my point.

@Shawn: I'm not even in the right industry, how 'bout that.

#5 Pavel on 10.02.15 at 9:39 pm

That's exactly what I learned over the years — if I bring a problem to a manager, he's liable to give me a /management/ decision.

So now I only come for an argument (rubber duck debugging isn't adversarial enough) or to get some perspective on the social stuff.

#6 Yossi Kreinin on 10.02.15 at 10:34 pm

Well, as a contributor I don't think I ever came to my manager with any questions along the lines of "how do I do this or that."

As a manager however it's not obvious what someone coming to you with a problem expects. Some people do want a "management decision", others don't and expect something more. They don't tell you so you need to figure it out as time goes by.

#7 angry hamster on 10.04.15 at 10:52 pm

cool! i liked this one)
it also reminds me of this saying from Shurik's Adventures "кто не работает, тот ест" you know))
team's reptilian brain (as you once called it:) should always eat more)

jokes aside, what is interesting about managers is how do you measure their work?
i mean it's easier to distinguish between "bad" and "good" programmer. you can measure bugs, time, failed deadlines and so on.
but how do managers measure each other's work?.. number of meetings or kpi?
it seems that it should be harder to hire a "good" manager than a good programmer.
and the idea of increasing productivity by not doing something looks so sad(

#8 Yossi Kreinin on 10.05.15 at 9:40 am

A manager's KPI can be very simple or very hard to define depending on what the team is doing. If each team member makes bricks and his KPI is the number of bricks then the manager's KPI is the average number of bricks made by a team member or some such. If team members are programmers it's hard to define the team's KPI but then it's also hard to define team members' KPIs.

I don't think managers and programmers (and I guess engineers, more generally) are that different in that respect, and they're similar in many others. Programmers can be thought of as robots' managers, I thought to write about it some time maybe.

#9 Ivan Tikhonov on 11.18.15 at 2:11 pm

I am tempted to give a managerial advice, but this year i finally understood that a question not asked is a question nobody wanted me to open my mouth blabbing.

#10 yoel on 12.19.15 at 10:40 am

Great writing , happy I found your blog.
kol ha kavod

#11 Yossi Kreinin on 12.19.15 at 10:51 am

Thanks!

#12 Marko Schilde on 01.11.17 at 10:47 am

I'm in a similar position myself, at some point I transitioned from Software Engineer to manager.

Fundamentally your management role is not that different from an Engineering role.

The trick is to wrap your mind around that you're now programming people, not machines. The architecture you build is teams comprised of motivated Engineers that can execute, not software comprised of flawless microservices. Good managers are also able to scale beyond that and can keep multiple teams operational with little loss of velocity / efficiency.

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