Management Myth 17: I Must Solve the Team’s Problem for Them

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Summary:

Everyone wants to be helpful, and that includes managers, middle managers, and senior managers. But the more managers interfere with a team’s growth, the less a team learns how to perform. Managers do not have to solve a team’s problems.

Josiah, the VP of engineering, called his directors meeting to order. “First on our agenda is my plan for the reorganization of our department,” he said.

The directors looked at each other, puzzled.

“I’ve noticed that several of the project teams are having trouble working together, so I’ve decided that we need a reorganization back to functional teams.”

After a couple of seconds of shocked silence, Dave, the QA director said, “Oh, no, don’t even think about going there. Don’t take a step backward like that. If you do, I don’t know what we will do with our test and measurement effort.”

Cheryl, the development director, said, “Right, our development is finally making forward progress with test-driven development (TDD) and with continuous integration. Don’t even think about making siloed teams. The teams have conflict. They are working it out. Leave them alone. What problems are you trying to solve? Why are you thinking about doing this?”

Josiah replied, “Wait a minute. I saw some significant discussions last week. I thought those discussions looked a lot like arguments. I thought Charlie and Sharon were going to actually fight it out. And I thought Tranh and Dan were going to beat each other up in the parking lot when I saw them discussing the design of that feature earlier this week. If we break up the developers and testers into functional groups, they won’t fight as often, right?

Cheryl looked at Dave. “You want to take this?”

“Yes, thank you,” Dave said. “Josiah, the testers and developers are finally learning how to work together. And now that the business analysts are on the teams too, and the teams have acceptance criteria for the stories, everyone is involved from the beginning. This is new for the teams. They have never worked this way before. You need to expect growing pains. People are frustrated.

“Let them work it out. We, the managers, are working with the teams, coaching people individually, providing feedback, helping them create a safe environment in which to work. If you come in and mess with the system, we will have to start all over again.

“We’ll still have the same project teams. But with functional teams, people will have to run around to find each other. That will make their lives much more difficult.

“These people are adults. All of us in this room have made ourselves available to our people. We all have one-on-ones. We have facilitated communities of practice. We have been helping people with their feedback skills and their coaching skills. Do not try to solve other people’s problems for them. Let them solve their problems themselves. We are monitoring their issues, and if we need to, we will step in. Got it?

“Now, what’s next on your list?”

Managers Want to be Helpful
Everyone wants to be helpful, and that includes managers, middle managers, and senior managers. But the more managers interfere with a team’s growth, the less a team learns how to perform. When a team is learning how to perform differently—in this case, transitioning to agile—management needs to expect a transition time where people experience a variety of changes in performance and emotion. This is okay. Managers need to support the change rather than changing things again.

Solving problems for the team does not help. If you look at what the directors say they did, they created a supportive environment for the teams. They created a safe atmosphere in which the teams could work. The fact that Josiah even saw disagreements tells me that they succeeded in this. The directors conducted one-on-ones and provided feedback and coaching so that people didn’t run off open-loop with no feedback. People knew where they stood with each other and with the team. That is management help.

About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website, jrothman.com, as well on createadaptablelife.com.

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