A Manager’s First Job

This is a guest post by Johanna Rothman

Help people learn how to solve problems, not solve the problems for them.

Many managers got promoted to management because they were excellent at the technical part of the job. But, the management role isn’t in the work itself — the job is about facilitating other people’s work. Instead of solving problems for people, consider these alternatives to help people learn.

Sally, the director, waited for Brad, the test manager to arrive for their one-on-one. When he was five minutes late, she worried. She messaged him.

“You okay? I’m waiting for you so we can have our one-on-one.”

It took a couple of minutes. He messaged back,

“I’m in the middle of solving a problem for the team.”

Well, that didn’t seem right. Sally thought she’d wait until Brad arrived so they could talk.

He finally arrived, ten minutes later. He looked pleased with himself.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “I had to help the Search team with their tests.”

“Are you testing with the Search team?” Sally asked.

“No, but you know how we just hired three new people and they started on that team? Well, they were all stuck on the testing.”

Sally paused. She asked, “Their team couldn’t help them learn what to do?”

“No,” Brad said. “The new people are testers, not developers. How could the developers know?”

“Did you help the developers learn how to test when you helped the testers?” Sally asked.

“No,” Brad said. “Should I have?”

Sally nodded. “Yes,” she said. “If we want agile teams, the teams have to learn how to help each other. As managers, we help people learn how to solve problems. We don’t solve problems for the team. Especially not for only part of a team when the entire team needs to learn.”

Brad looked worried.

“We need to help the team learn how to solve their own problems,” Sally said. “Some problems we need to solve. We resolve the organizational impediments, such as lack of facilities, or tools, or even when we, as managers, don’t manage the project portfolio. Those are in our court. But how the team tests or solving problems when the tests are stuck? The team needs to learn how to do that, as a team. Let’s talk about your options.”

Define a Manager’s Role

For too long, managers thought they needed to be the expert for the team. Or, the expert on the team. And, our organizations reinforce that thinking when they promote great technical people into management.

However, the most effective managers are not the experts for—or on—the team. Instead, the best managers help the team learn how to solve its problems. Sometimes, the team encounters problems that prevent them from working as a team to solve the problems. Managers do need to help with those problems. But team-based problems?

Managers facilitate the team’s problem-solving capabilities.

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Facilitate the Team’s Problem Solving Capabilities

When you think of a team’s capabilities, you might think of functional skills, such as design, coding, testing, and more. However, in an agile team, the most critical skill might be the ability to solve problems as a team.

Teams tend to have three categories of problems to solve—technical problems, often about the product; interpersonal problems; and problems outside the team that the team can’t solve.

In this case, Brad helped the team solve a technical problem instead of helping them learn how to solve that problem. This team had not yet coalesced as a team. We can tell, because the entire team thinks the tests are a testing problem, as opposed to a team problem.

Brad had several options, and he chose the most expedient option—to help the team learn where the tests were and how to run them. However, the most expedient option didn’t help the team learn how to work together.

In fact, the team didn’t affiliate with each other as a team. The team had an interpersonal skills problem.

Facilitate Interpersonal Problem-Solving

Most of us didn’t start in the software field because we love people. Most of us got into software because we loved solving problems for other people (as developers) or exposing problems for other people (as testers), or both.

Most of us have to learn how to effectively work with people. And, because we often feel pressure to do a great job, we need deep interpersonal skills to solve our inevitable team problems.

And, if your team has recently moved from a waterfall approach to an agile approach, you, your team members, and your managers might still default to thinking in resource efficiency, not flow efficiency.

Team members who think in “my part” as opposed to “our work” tend to have trouble affiliating as a team. That was the real problem Brad encountered.

Brad thought the new team members didn’t know how to find the tests or how to run them. That was the surface problem.

The real issue is that the developers didn’t think it was their job to integrate the testers. But, healthy agile teams decide how and learn how to integrate new people, so they all feel as if they are part of one team.

This team didn’t have a lot of practice being a team. The team members needed to learn how to work together. That work included offering each other feedback and coaching.

As the team practiced, they learned how to work together. They started collaborating and delivering on a regular basis. They made great progress until they encountered several organizational impediments.

Solve Impediments That Prevent the Team from Delivering

The Search team used a variety of databases. And, they wanted to experiment to improve the performance of their search results.

However, the Search team was not allowed to create new databases with different schemas. A different group was in charge of the databases and felt they could not allow experimentation because the risks would be too high.

This is the kind of impediment managers can remove. When Brad and Sally investigated, they learned:

  • The other group had no staging environment. All the experiments would have to be on production data. (When the Search team realized that, they agreed that would be too risky.)
  • The other group had strict capital expense limits and they had already spent their yearly allocation.

However, Sally’s department did have some money. Not as much as the Search team needed, but some. And, when Sally spoke with her managers, those managers realized the Search team needed more money to deliver their experiments.

It took several weeks, but Sally was able to succeed. The Search team conducted their experiments and were able to deliver the answers people needed.

Managers Facilitate Problem-Solving

Managers might be able to see the system better than team members. And when managers help the team learn how to solve their problems, the team can learn how to work better together.

In The Secrets of Consulting, Gerald M. Weinberg was correct when he said,

It’s always a people problem.

Brad thought the team had a testing problem. They did, and the real problem was the team didn’t know how to work as a team. Once they learned how to work as a team, they got stuck on a different people problem: the way the organization allocated money to work. That required Sally to intervene with the right people.

When managers facilitate a team’s problem-solving, everyone wins. And, the manager has much less direct team-based work to finish.

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Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” provides frank advice for your tough problems. She helps leaders and teams see problems and resolve risks and manage their product development. Johanna is the author of fourteen books and hundreds of articles. Find the Pragmatic Manager, a monthly email newsletter, and her blogs at jrothman.com and createadaptablelife.com.

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