Engineers can make great managers. They have
highly-developed problem solving skills, and they have mastered knowledge
needed to lead technology-based organizations. But the road from engineering to
management can be surprisingly rocky. Management requires ways of behaving and
thinking that can seem contrary to hard-learned engineering values. This can
lead to teams of engineers, frustrated by managers who can’t manage, and newly-promoted
managers who find themselves in positions of bewildering stress.
This pyramid summarizes the Thinking Teams view of a successful
organization, effectively moving toward its goals, powered by collaborating
teams of wholehearted individuals. The pyramid builds from foundational elements; its layers show focus areas for
organizational improvement and growth.
Starting from the base:
- Self-Aware, Productive Individuals– a wonderful
alignment happens when an organization enables its members to participate in a way
that connects with their full selves, not just the conscious
tip of the mind's iceberg (
People thinking together can achieve remarkable results. 2012
saw the discovery of the Higgs boson using the 17-mile-long Large Hadron
Collider; the successful lowering of the
NASA Curiosity Lander to the surface of Mars by its sky crane (verified 14
minutes later when its radio signals finally reached earth); and Apple reaching
a market capitalization of $375B, placing it first among technology companies.
Human rationality made all these things possible.
Of course, humans aren't always rational.
“Part of the $10M I
spent on gambling, part on booze, and part on women. The rest I spent
foolishly.” – attributed to George Raft
Maybe George was onto something, at least the gambling part.
Taking a chance on an uncertain outcome is often considered foolhardy or even
immoral, yet chance-taking is at the core of life. Everything about our biology
is built to capitalize on chance events, from the connection-rich carbon atoms
we’re made of, to the way our DNA lets the occasional mutation squeak by, to the
way sexual reproduction rolls the genetic dice.
1997 Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon Dilbert, put on a disguise and played management
consultant at the real company, Logitech. With the cooperation of a company
official who was in on the joke, Adams spent over an hour leading a group of
senior managers to create a new mission statement, full of relatively
content-free phrases such as “emerging, mission-inclusive markets”, “explore
new paradigms”, and “filter and communicate and evangelize the findings”.
Like most jokes, this one is funny because it is both absurd
and true-to-life, just like the Dilbert comics.
For a long time I thought business politics was a dirty word. I guess I wasn't alone – this is from Wikipedia: “…. organizational
politics are by definition: The pursuit of individual agendas and self-interest
without regard to their effect on the organization’s efforts to achieve its
goals…. See also Coworker backstabbing, Cronyism, Gaming the system, Nepotism,
One-upmanship, Psychological manipulation, Workplace bullying …”. What a doctrine of dirty deeds!
But the thing that really bugged me was people crying “politics”
as a cop-out.
is no shortage of advice on how to be a good manager. Right now I’m looking at
a management textbook with over 500 references, and for each of those books and
articles, you could probably find hundreds more saying basically the same thing.
Why are management themes so frequently recycled? I think it’s because the
problem isn’t in theknowing
. We know enough to
construct an impossibly long to-do list of things a good manager should do. We
start down our list of good intentions, and then find our actions dictated by the
curve balls life decides to pitch our way.
notion of an organization as a “factory” can make people frown. You know the story
– dull, repetitive tasks; exploited workers; de-humanized cogs in a machine. This
is what organizations get when they forget they are made up of people. But just
the same, all organizations share a factory-like need to guide and coordinate human
During my first years studying engineering in college, I
worked in a factory that made trucks. I noticed a parallel: both factories and
electrical circuits need a design that works in spite of variable and somewhat
In a sense, an organization is a big project. Like any
project it needs a balance of structure and flexibility; it needs a healthy
respect for the unknown, an infrastructure that fits, and courageous openness. However,
an organization is more than just a project – it is an enabling environment. Lots
of words are written about how to make organizations work, but I want to start
by asking “Why do organizations fail?”. We have lots of examples of that –
financial meltdowns, shuttle disasters, broken healthcare systems, car recalls.
We often talk about life in blacks and whites, but life is
lived in grays. Take the opposites “rigid” and “flexible”. The
most rigid, unforgiving thing I can think of is concrete, and now there is
“bendable concrete”*! Project leaders trying to enforce The Plan may see a black and white choice between
order and chaos. What’s really needed is an agile shade of gray.
Balancing project structure and flexibility is a fine art.
Too little structure gives us the Wild West, unmet commitments, and a team limited
to what can be achieved by the fittest survivor.