Managing Your Manager

3. April, 2006

I’m a nerd. I have no social life, nothing besides my computers and my love for complex problems. In former times, I would have been called a monk. Now, I’m a highly payed (but still somewhat strange) specialist.

There was a time, when Suits were a kind of enemy for me. They didn’t understand. They didn’t care. They made decisions which made me weep.

Then, one of them handed me an article.

“Managing Your Manager”.

What could be a recipe to manipulate your superior was in fact a short text about decision making and what can go wrong and why.

What’s a specialist?

A specialist is someone who knows.

He lives inside the problem.

But as we all know, living inside makes it hard to look at it from the outside.

A manager is the opposite: He looks at the problem from the outside.

Several of them, usually.

So, by my definition, a manager cannot make good decisions because he or she doesn’t understand the problem. If your car doesn’t start in the morning, you know that something is wrong. But that doesn’t make the problem go away.

The key here is to bridge the gap. When a manager has to make a decision, she has to. It’s not like she has much choice. So there will be a decision.

And since she’s no fool, she’ll try to get some facts so the decision is not quite as random as it might seem afterwards.

This is where the tech guys come in.

“Hey Bob, we’re behind scedule. Why is that?” asks the manager.

Bob thinks: Hey, now I can tell her about all the insane problems we have with broken computers, paranoid security, insane deadlines, bug-ridden software.

But that doesn’t help the manager to make a decision: How to get things done in time.

So Bob drones on until the manager leaves.

Bob feels better but the manager still has no clue what to do.

So she’ll make a decision and Bob will be very upset because he can’t understand how anyone with a brain could be so stupid. Especially after he explained it!

The problem here is that when Bob talks about buggy software, he probably has some ideas how to solve the problem. Maybe using a different software might help. Or a different version. There might be patches available. Giving the sales guy a hint that the annual license might be canceled if they don’t get some important fixes really soon might yield unexpected improvements.

For Bob, this is obvious. For the manager, it might not be.

Things get worse when it comes to deep technical problems. Most nerds will just nod when I say that a problem is exponential.

Most managers will nod, too, because they’re as uncomfortable to display the fool like everybody else.

But they won’t understand. Not really.

For a manager, a presentation is the way to communicate.

Such a presentation should have four to five pages. Maybe six. No more.

On the first page, you should explain the problem.

If the problem doesn’t fit on a single page, you’re probably talking about two different problems. Split them and create a second presentation for the other one.

On each of the following pages, put one line with a proposed solution and two lists below: Pros and cons.

Give at least three different solutions. If you can’t think of any besides the obviously best solution, have a short chat with your boss to see what he or she thinks.

That should give you something to work with because his or her view at the problem will be a completely different one than yours.

Don’t try to prefer one of the solutions, if you can. You will find that when you can keep your mind open, after finishing the last page of the presentation, you often get another idea.

One that is much better than the other three ones.

But even if you have only three solutions, you will quickly see that one of them is much better than the other ones.

Sort your presentation in such a way that the inferior ones come first. Keep the best for last.

If you can’t decide one over the other, then that’s okay, too: If they are equally good, then they must be equally bad as well, so it doesn’t matter which one gets chosen.

When I do such a presentation (which usually goes 10-15 minutes), something happens.

The managers will get the facts for their decision making in small, digestible bits.

They will have several possible solutions to chose from which they like. Nobody likes the feeling being pushed into a certain direction.

Furthermore, they will think that you care. You created a small presentation (thus not wasting their time), you give them control (they make the decision).

And, oh wonder, most of the time, the will chose your prefered solution.

You’re the specialist, after all! Who knows better than you?

The net result is that everyone gets what he wants: You get your prefered solution (and probably even a better one than you’d got if you hadn’t given the presentation) and the managers get to decide (so it’s not your fault when something goes wrong).

So good luck with your next presentation.

And one last piece of advice with animations: Don’t. They just distract from the content. The more animations in a presentation, the less meat is in there. Every manager knows that.