Myth 31: I Don’t Have to Make the Difficult Choices


"Don't bring me problems; bring me solutions." Sound familiar? Sounds like a management cop out to Johanna Rothman. A primary purpose of managers is to help their teams perform to the best of their abilities, and that includes stepping up and making tough decisions to help solve problems.

Peter, a CTO in a small company, shook his head. I have no idea what I am going to do. My CEO wants me to do everything. But I can’t. I don’t have the staff. We don’t know how to scale the PerfApp. We don’t know how to test the NewApp, because we don’t have enough people, never mind enough testers. He’s going to tell me, “Don’t bring me a problem; bring me a solution.” That’s nonsense. I have problems because I don’t have the money for everything we need to do. I’m going to try one more time to talk to him.

Peter made an appointment with Bob for a one-on-one later that week. As he prepared for the conversation, Peter thought about how he could persuade Bob to see the Technology group as a value-add center not as a cost center. I have great people working hard. They are producing the engine that runs this organization. But Bob doesn’t see that. He thinks we’re in the transportation business, because that’s what the apps do. But, we’re in the technology business. Technology and innovation drive our apps. Our customers understand it. How can I make Bob see this? That’s going to be key to our conversation.

As with many organizations, Peter’s has undergone a dramatic shift in the past five to ten years. They have transitioned from a small IT shop where the software ran on mainframes to a client-server application. Now, the application runs everywhere: desktop, browser, mobile, and social media. The customers, truckers, and containers stay in contact 24/7.

The truckers and the customers are quite sophisticated about the apps, pushing the company for more features all the time. Peter’s team has transformed their application and the company. They’ve tripled sales, and tripled the number of people in Technology. They’ve been able to maintain an uptime of greater than 99 percent, which their customers appreciate.

But the cost is high. The Technology group is doing too much support. They have no slack to take start this other NewApp. Yes, the teams have been working in an agile way, but the backlog for PerfApp is so large, that there is no time to start NewApp for months.

Peter is attempting to do the work of at least three people. If he spends a reasonable time at work, he feels overwhelmed. If he spends a lot of overtime, his family yells at him.

He took the time to write down all the work that he is doing and what his organization looks like. He has twenty people all reporting directly to him. He has three team leads but no managers. He is supposed to write performance evaluations for everyone at the end of the year, but because he has so many people, he only has one-on-ones once a month.

The Technology teams have too much work. Peter has too much work. This is his conversation with Bob, the CEO.

“Bob, I’m glad we’re meeting now. Here’s my situation. Technology has too much work to do. I need to add five more positions to start NewApp now, so we can meet your proposed deadline of having a release by the end of the year. That would also allow us to transition much of our support work to Customer Support, instead of doing it for them. I would also have an agile project manager to offload some of my responsibility and get you those metrics that you and I both want.”

Peter gave Bob the personnel requisition forms to sign.

Bob sighed. “Peter, you’re always asking me for more people. I need more people in Sales, not Technology. We need to grow the top line, not the bottom line.”

Peter was ready. “Bob, it’s right there on the profit and loss statements. Look at our sales growth. Look at our G&A growth. Now, look at Technology. As a percentage of sales, we have decreased. That’s right. We started at 14 percent of sales and decreased to 8 percent G&A ballooned to 20 percent. I don’t know what you guys are doing, but we need to hire more people. We are the engine behind the apps, and I need more people. With five more people, Technology will only be at 10 percent.

“Growing Technology will allow you to grow the top line. When we release apps, you can sell more. If we don’t release, you can’t sell. We are now a technology company.

Bob looked surprised. “Wow, I hadn’t realized the numbers. OK, you get the people.” He signed the reqs. “I’ll have to figure out what’s going on in G&A. I’m not so sure about the technology company part though.”

“Wait a minute,” Peter said. “We’re not done. We have some difficult decisions to make.”

“You know what I’m going to say,” Bob said. “Don’t bring me a problem. Bring me a solution.”

“You know, that’s a cop-out. You are my manager. You oversee the entire organization. When you say that, you force me, someone who sees less of the entire system, to make a decision. Do you really want me to?”

Peter wasn’t sure what Bob would say. They’d worked together for a long time. Even so, this was the first time he’d pushed back on that particular saying of Bob’s.

“Here’s the problem,” Peter said. “Even when I bring more people on, it will take them a while to come up to speed. I am going to need help making decisions about what to do when. Because we have been so understaffed for so long, and because Support still depends on us, we have a transition time ahead of us. I need help across the organization to make this work.

“We need breathing room from Support. We need to know that we really have the value in the backlogs for PerfApp. I need to know that everyone is optimizing at the corporate level, not at their perspective. I need you to set the strategic vision for the organization and make it stick.

“I don’t need you at the backlog meetings, but I need you to say something about the relative importance of PerfApp and NewApp and where they sit with respect to all the other things we do. Let me walk you through our entire project portfolio and discuss what’s going on.”

Peter took out the digital picture he’d taken of the cards on the wall that morning. “Here is what we are doing. I don’t want to let the organization down, but we need to eliminate these things, here, here, and here. That would allow us to start on NewApp in just two months.”

“Two months! I want you to start on it now!”

“We have no one to start on it now. That’s what I’m telling you. Unless we stop doing other things. These are the difficult choices we need to make.”

Peter and Bob continued their discussion and eventually came to the conclusion they needed to talk to the other department heads. This decision required feedback from more people.

Managers Make Difficult Choices
Managers make the difficult choices in the organization because they have the financial responsibility to do so. If they decide to share that responsibility, then the teams might make those choices. But saying, “Don’t bring me a problem, bring me a solution” isn’t helpful.

In this case, Peter thought about what Bob would want to know: What was the relative cost of the Technology group versus its value? What was the Technology group already working on and delivering? How long would it take to find and integrate new people and start them on the new project? What were Peter’s alternatives for his projects? What was Peter’s group doing now and what could they be doing? Was there an alternative way to organize the people without creating bureaucracy?

In small companies, these problems seem magnified, because you never have enough people to work on the work. In larger organizations, you have problems, because you have layers and bureaucracy.

If you have to bring a difficult problem to your manager, consider what your manager needs to know about this problem, so your manager can make the best possible decision.

No matter what kind of a company you work for, if you have management, management exists to create a system where people can contribute to the best of their ability. That includes making the difficult choices.

Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

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