The manager said to me, wistfully, "If it weren't for the people, this job would be perfect." He was responsible for the work of nine people.
The problem was, of course, that the people WERE the job. The process he was conducting did not exist without the nine people. The manager was superb as an individual user of the system, but not as a leader of the people.
This made for a tough place to work. A perfectionist in charge of people whose presence, in his mind, messed up his beloved process.
His relentless clamping down of rigid standards produced a certain level of quality in the work, but it left no time for staff development – not that he saw any value in that. Or knew how to do it, or cared to learn.
He guaranteed himself high turnover and a resultant steady supply of imperfect new staff members to belabor.
This is about what really goes on in management. Titles are poor indicators of what a person’s responsibilities actually are.
In our world, running a process devoid of people, however complex and important, does not require management. It requires technical expertise, maybe a lot of technical expertise, but there’s a world of challenge it does not present.
A process is a defined set of sequentially dependent steps that produce a predictable outcome. Process improvement means making the steps ever clearer and more efficient, thereby making the result more predictable with less input of time, effort and resources.
In short, a people-free process rewards knowledgeable tinkering, and sits there waiting for you -- unchanged -- between tinks (new word: “Tink – Any act of tinkering; what obsessed process addicts do with their obsessions.” Add it to your dictionary).
Managing such an unadorned process is what managers often yearn to do -- and in fact is what many go ahead and do, ignoring the obvious reality that there are lots of people embedded in the nonhuman process.
And there's the rub. The better the process is in the abstract, the less it fits comfortably with the inclinations of most of the people who operate it and are affected by it.
People are improvable, but they also are unpredictable and often not very logical or efficient. A tight process annoys many of them, and can trigger avoidance or resistance (or worse).
So, for the vast majority of workplace organizations that consist of people wound around a process (or vice versa), what is the secret of good management?
The answer starts with accepting the fact that managers reside uncomfortably, often painfully, on the seam between process and people. Their job is to get the maximum output from people who can't operate effectively without process, but who may react against learning and following the process.
This relationship often is negatively affected by the manager's personal mastery of the process, meaning there is a persistent temptation to "do it myself." This an attractive mistake, and it produces narrow success and systemic failure.
Staff members see the process-perfect manager turn out fine work, and they devise ways to evade criticism of their own less-exemplary efforts. The boss often is too busy – and too impatient – to instruct them.
Nor does he/she grasp the truth that management means organizing people to devote themselves to learning how to accomplish their personally lesser results collectively, thereby turning out the vast preponderance of production in this world. It’s not the occasional champ who makes things work; it’s the legions of grunts, well managed or not, who do.
The job is to tune the available people to the highest possible group level of output, with the greatest measure of quality and efficiency possible with that assemblage of “talent.” Success in this is shifting and indistinct. Sometimes it is recognized in ways that satisfy high-achieving individualists, but only rarely.
Nobody tells newly minted managers this. The job of management, properly defined, is quite short of fun, at least at first. Study the best managers. While you’re taking your lumps, make sure you learn the what, the why and the how of what’s happening and ways you can improve it. Look for mentoring and advice, but never forget performance really is all up to you.
The primary workstyle requirements of the true manager, especially early in the career, are patience and tolerance, followed by flexibility and persistence. You aim to be a top process manager, sure, and an expert problem-solver. Subject-matter knowledge is a given, but often it need not be top-drawer personal expertise.
One skill that the best managers practice extremely well is education of staff members, and another is persuasion. They know their hardwon job expertise now must be passed on, often to people who can absorb and use much less of it than the leader did and does.
As a manager, you're measured by collective results. Your individual managerial contribution usually is invisible. Once in a while you pull off a noticeable success, but don’t bank on getting a lot of appreciation.
Some of your bosses – senior managers – know the properly functioning group can be that way only because a master manager is inside there, constantly balancing people and process.
Many bosses don't understand that, though, and many who do know it tend to take the excellence for granted after a while.
Welcome to life on the seam.