Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Roles Over Process

So I started this little rant a while back about processes. I realized that it wasn't process itself that was the culprit, but managers that micromanage by creating a process to define how their employees do their jobs. And now, after some illness and long running issues at work, I can try to tackle the topic of a better way, in my humble opinion, to manage people.

The short version: create high level roles for each employee. Is this more difficult? Maybe, but I think the benefits are substantial.

One responsibility of a good manager is to define roles that describe what each position is accountable for. Do not think about how people will get their work done. At least, not any more than is needed to define the roles. How people work is process, and in the end, it is best for each employee to figure out the best process to accomplish their goals. They will end up knowing their jobs better than their manager ever could. Designers need to design an application that helps emu farmers keep track of their flocks. Developers need to deliver that application. Those tasks are what the respective roles are responsible for. If you can't figure out what everyone should be doing, they certainly won't be able to and no one will know how to work together.

That's another of the manager's responsibilities, figure out how to get the groups to work together. Help work through communications issues. That might be facilitating a meeting that determines a specification format; that is what the specification contains, not how it gets written. Or it may require making a command decision on who ultimately has jurisdiction over apparently overlapping responsibilities. Do the designers need to convince the developers a feature should be implemented to spec, or are the final designs the last word; I've seen both approaches work.

Hold employees responsible for their work. If results are not up to standards, find out why and how you can help. Get people the tools and training they need. Create a good environment. Adjust roles and responsibilities as needed. Offer advice from your own experience while being careful not to lay down any laws. And be ready to make the tough decision to let someone go if they just don't fit in at your organization for some reason.

After having said all that, I realize these responsibilities are definitely are not easy. That is probably the reason many people end up managing by process. But the benefits are profound. The best part is that skilled, creative workers will be happier when they are allowed to get a job done the way they want. This builds trust and a sense of ownership; intrinsic motivations to do a job well. The other side of that coin is that the manager does not need to keep tabs on the details of every iota of work. Instead, the manager is doing what they should be doing, taking care of employees, communicating, removing roadblocks where needed and holding people accountable.

I think the hardest part about this approach for most is people is when it means giving up something that they enjoy doing. As a programmer, I am not whole-heartedly looking forward to the day where I turn development over to other people. That means I won't have the final say on how things get coded anymore. But how the code is written won't be my responsibility at that point either. I just need to make sure that I trust the people put in place to accomplish what their goals are. I hope that I will do this as well as the managers I have worked with that I admire. I hope that people will enjoy working for me just as much.

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