The dual role of the middle management (do not underestimate the art of manipulating the boss)

There are three types of positions in an organizational hierarchy:

  • Top management, the decision makers;
  • middle management, those who detail and implement top management strategies, communicating execution plans to the people who do the real work that is,
  • employees and workers.

Note that only the middle managers communicate both with the top management and with the employees and workers. In a traditional enterprise, the communication is oriented top-down, with middle management only detailing and passing on the orders.

In IT, as probably in the other hi-tech industries, bottom-up communication is of a paramount importance as the problems arrive unexpected and are sometimes not only difficult to overcome, but even difficult to explain. However, managers are still evaluated mostly on their abilities to manage subordinates, not on the ability to channel information to the top management, guiding and orienting corporate decision-making.

My brief manager's career ended partly because my company could not avoid the usual problems of software development, the problems that I knew about, could forecast, but was unable to mitigate as they arrived, mostly because I could not guide the much less knowledgeable boss through the minefield of decision-making without hurting his ego.

A manager that can not influence the decisions of the boss is only a half-manager, I now see clearly which half I was. Being aware of this handicap in advance could have helped me. Reading this post and applying it to your situation will probably help you.

Yet another ideal project management tool

Looking back to my last review of different tools used in project management, I figured out that this review is a a recipe for yet another ideal project management tool.

Such a tool should be useable throughout the whole project lifecycle by providing a common interface for editing mind maps, Gantt charts and bug reports. It shall also be possible to link each of the three types of documents to the technical and business documentation contained in the project wiki. Such a wiki, to be really usable, should allow to export an arbitrary collection of pages into one single Word, RTF or ODF document, while keeping the hierarchical structure of the above mentioned collection.

Easy? Yep. Has anybody done this already? Nope.


The granularity of planning

More on Chaos control.

The most dangerous outcome of the underplanning is employee frustration. Without clear day-to-day targets, employees loose interest in the work. Some become anxious, not willing to take on responsibilities beyond what they consider their assignment.

The danger of the overplanning is that detailed plans are hard to change.

The rigidness of the plan is proportional to the time spent on it, as the only reason not to change plans is often sheer inertia of those that invested already a lot of time to write it up, in the first place.

An ideal planning phase is short and concise, and the planing granularity is barely sufficient to distribute the day-to-day assignments to the employees.


The essence of a IT project manager's work

A project manager plays with two major forces: Chaos and Freedom. When a project starts, nothing is clear, the previous stages like business analysis and user requirements collection have likely been a complete failure and collected input won't help much the team and the manager. At this point, the manager has to control the Chaos and reduce it to the minimum, by creating an environment where everyone know exactly what to do, how to do it and how much time would it take.

So he starts to plan, as the work moves on. The days roll out, and he slowly realizes that there is not much left of the initial planning, and the team is swirling out in different directions. This is where the Freedom control takes precedence. The manager has to give everyone enough Freedom so that every morning employees felt the urge to scratch an itch, while still working in the planned direction.

He slowly realizes that the Chaos/Freedom ratio is unique for each employee, and he has to work out a personal approach to everyone if the wants the team to work at full throttle.

By the time everything is crystal clear in his mind, and all the errors have been consumed and learned from, the project ends, and the manager moves on the next one or bails out.