Thursday, June 23, 2011

More (Mis)Management

In the interest of full disclosure, and so that this comes off a bit less like a rant, I should start by pointing out that I have been fortunate enough to have a number of very good managers during my career, starting with Bob Kornegay and Joe Mezzaroba at Bell Labs, then Joel Rosner on Wall Street, Dave Koppel at Excalibur and Jeff Schneiderman at Atomica (now  There were others, but these stand out.

And what made them stand out?  It wasn’t their mastery of the techniques of management, though certainly they all had that to one extent or another.  No, it was their personal virtues.  Patience. Thoughtfulness.  Humility.  Professionalism.  Having these qualities will not necessarily make one a good manager (as I mentioned in the previous post, managing well is hard), but lacking them will just-about guarantee being a bad manager.  Yes, I’ve seen managers (me most of all) fail to estimate schedules correctly, fail to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of subordinates, fail to hire the right people and fire the wrong ones and misapprehend trends in technology and the market.  But the really spectacular implosions have been due to arrogance, selfishness and plain bad manners.

Is that too vague?  Okay, let’s say your company makes fardels.  They’re good fardels, but the market is pretty-much saturated, so neither your price nor your market share is likely to go up.  You come up with the novel idea of leasing fardels, rather than selling them outright.  You invest heavily in this new direction, hiring sales and marketing personnel with leasing (although without fardel) experience, setting up booths at trade shows, advertising and having your fardel-scientists develop features geared towards the new business model.

And then it turns out that nobody seems interested in leasing fardels.

If you’re a good manager, perhaps you immediately scale back your new expenditures while reevaluating your strategy, perhaps you solicit feedback on why customer enthusiasm is below expectation; perhaps you solicit ideas from your scientist for a fardel-leasing “killer app”, or run a “why I’d rather lease a fardel in 500-words-or-less” write-in contest, looking for fresh ideas.  Frankly, I have little idea, both because I don’t know what a fardel is (the word actually means “bundle”, but was used as a substitute for “widget” in Starwell, by Alexei Panshin) and because, as I said, I’m not that good a manager.

If you lack those managerial skills and that creativity but have character, perhaps you back off of the leasing idea, trim staff and hope to weather the crisis and slowly rebuild the original business; perhaps you try to sell the original infrastructure to a competitor.  In any case you solicit opinions, notably from your subordinates, act with renewed caution since so much is at stake, cut staff and salaries – your own first – only out of necessity and in general act like a responsible adult.

But with-or-without skills, if you lack character you’ll refuse to consider that your idea is faulty.  Instead, you’ll blame your sales people for incompetence, your scientists for developing inferior fardels and failing to suit them to leasing; you’ll replace key people in all departments, thus losing valuable experience and institutional knowledge; you'll redouble spending on your leasing campaign by stripping budgets from other departments until they can barely operate, then you’ll blame them for their reduced productivity; you’ll borrow money based on your company’s previous solid standing, not letting on to the lenders that the basis for that standing no-longer exists.

These things happen every day, although the spectacular failures often take years of mundane bad behavior before they come to a head.

If I’m still being vague (Fardels?  Really?), perhaps it’s because I don’t much believe in categorical imperatives of management.  I mistrust big, sweeping rules and statements about How Things Are and How They Work.  I have little rules, some of which are practically tautological (which makes it all-the-more surprising that they’re so often ignored) and none of which is likely to break a company in its breach.  Here are a couple:

·         Authority and Responsibility should correlate.  I constantly see cases where people are doomed to failure, held accountable for results while denied the authority for basic decisions about how to get those results, while on-the-other hand monsters are created by letting people make decisions whose impact, if negative, never reflects back on them;

·         Don’t assume that your subordinates are your inferiors.  How many times have you seen pep talks have the opposite effect because the staff – having at least the intelligence of ten-year-olds – see right through them?  How much good advice has been ignored because it came from someone with too low a pay grade?

Enough for now.  Perhaps in a future post I’ll discuss the feudal mentality that’s behind many of these fiascos, and it’s prevalence in Hi-Tech.
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