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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Management by Problem

When one of us got into a messy situation on the job, the boss liked to show up and stand nearby, watching silently. An accusing presence behind your back, just what you needed.

When you finally got out of it, he would invite you to his office, where he would subject you to a long, slow recitation of the obvious – carefully avoiding any useful advice and most definitely not taking any managerial responsibility.

You’d think it might have dawned on him somewhere along the way that, if we were all that incompetent, there must have been a deep flaw in the hiring process. I never thought to ask him that, but I’m sure he would have instantly fingered the company salary policy and/or any number of causes other than his own ill will and incompetence.

He practiced management by problem. Everything wrong in the operation could be blamed on the doofusses on his staff, on those who ran the other departments and, of course, on the top management of the organization.

His was an especially sick brand of mismanagement, although many of us have experienced some form of its practice in our worklives. However, there also is a healthy brand of “management by problem,” one closely aligned with the most effective leadership.

The most fundamental responsibility of those who manage people is to devise and maintain effective processes for good contributors to use in doing good work. Among the most important of the processes are those by which those good contributors are chosen, integrated into the operation and overseen on the job.

“Devise effective processes” means to create or adapt the most effective rules, practices and culture for consistent quality results. “Maintain” means to keep a close eye on those processes and make immediate adjustments when things slip into variance. That is good management by problem.

Every “problem” – event or action that is counter to the designated way of doing business – is the boss’s problem.

Doesn’t matter who the immediate owner of the problem is, or where and how it arose. The boss is responsible for making sure it gets satisfactorily taken care of. Ideally, the boss guides the staff member, as necessary, in solving it. When that can’t be done, the boss makes sure a solution is found some other way.

So many organizational failings come directly from processes that just don’t do the job, or gaps that have opened when unchanged processes no longer meet changing circumstances. On the people side, so much productivity is lost in the sour atmosphere created by surly co-workers who get away with it.

From the senior partner’s point of view, slippages in performance or behavior often seem too minor to bother people about. Nobody likes a nitpicker, and constant correction is bad for relationships.

From the staff member’s point of view, though, one’s own compliance – and respect for the manager – tends to slip downhill when things get sloppy and nothing is done about it. Where do you draw the line, and how?

Management by problem needs to be sensitive, and it must be tailored to the individual as well as the situation. A good rule, though, is that small variances need small notice, perhaps by means of a casual remark. With some mature professionals, that’s all it takes – you don’t want to overdo it, especially in tone and approach.

 A repeat of the problem, though, even in a minor matter, calls for a private chat. The goal is to have the staff member take personal responsibility for observing the defined process or behavior. If escalating discipline is called for, it never should be deferred.

On the other hand, the person may be dealing with a situation the boss is not aware of, including perhaps a change in the circumstances or environment. Or maybe the person just knows something the boss doesn't.

A respectful, inquiring attitude by that senior party would draw out the real situation, allowing for a healthy adjustment to the process and a pat on the back for the employee. All of which in turn earns respect for the manager. A net gain all around.

Maybe it should be called “management by solution.”

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