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

September 30th, 2015

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

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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď this one's for you.