Sunday, June 02, 2013

Corporate America You're Doing it Wrong: Part 3


Next up, let's talk a little about your employees. You know those people right? They're the ones killing you with payroll costs that you're trying to replace with robots.

If you believe Drucker's correction that there is only one profit center (the clients) then you and your employees are all about delivering your product or service to the client.

We're not Standing at an Assembly Line Anymore

A lot of managers think, rather selfishly, that all that matters is that the manager make the deadline and that the employees are automatons that simply are there for the paycheck and really don't have human aspirations to learn or advance. The manager is really only worried about one thing and that is to uphold the metrics that his bosses judge him by. This is usually, get X task done by Y date. So everything is done to make a date even things like cutting corners or knowingly producing less than a quality product.

I understand this is the way the world works. But if management and executive management is not going to care about anything else but the lowest common denominator in the world of work, then you don't get to whine when I call it out as selfish, unprofessional and inefficient. 

It's already been documented elsewhere that a happy employee is a productive one. It's also true that oppressive tactics can yield productivity gains, although I don't know many people that would want to work for Nazis cracking whips, and thus those managers will always have to deal with the overhead of turnover (as long as there is a competitive free market that employees can navigate).

Your Job is More than Looking at a Gantt Chart

But how do you fix the employees in the product-client-employee triangle? You start by looking in the mirror instead of pointing a finger. You're management. Employees will look to you for direction. Management should be about more than dates. It should also be about leadership, but the bulk of those in management roles are falling short here.

Not that I don't appreciate the challenges of management. There is a huge one as we deal with the integrating global economy. Outsourcing, cost-cutting and frantic desperation aren't totally inconceivable when faced with trying to be competitive with the Indians and the Chinese. But I can't help but feel that I'm better off now as an IT consultant rather than an IT employee. I'm doing the same work but actually treated better. That's a horrible thing. Your employees should feel proud to be a part of your company and feel that there's always something more they can do for the customer and are excited to do so. That's not the case, especially in IT, as I've discussed in posts past.

I guess there's no easy solution to the employee puzzle. But I believe that if management took a more encompassing approach to its job, it would go far beyond dates. Treat employees like, well, human beings. They will take direction and they will do your work, but if you want more than just a robot you have to develop it. Some employees are really good about this, and they will demand various conditions and sometimes when they're proven as effective workers you meet some of their demands. There's a whole contingent of them that are also not quite as vocal but still appreciate the concept of continued skills development and growth opportunities. And this is the humble group that will often go the extra mile when you need it and not complain too much, at first. Ultimately though they would like to be included in the plans, to have some sort of career path.

What Employees Want: Money is Nice, but so is a Plan 

But wait, how do we make it so that everyone can advance if there's ultimately only one CEO spot available at time? Well, I think people are smart enough to recognize everyone can't all be in the limited spots, but there's a myriad of roles people can play through different layers and columns of the organization. Be open to the idea of cross-training and gaining the benefits of creating a workforce that is less narrow; where someone can understand HR, accounting, operations, and IT. There are already proven benefits when a developer has a good grasp of the business; think of other synergies that could be gained if they also understood data pathways of HR and operations and perhaps streamline some of that data and utilize it in multiple ways. At some point you'd have a heck of an analyst/programmer/consultant that would do great things for the company, ultimately to more efficiently serve the customer. The point is that continuous intellectual stimulation is a huge part of motivating people, especially knowledge workers. Promotion is nice, when it's warranted (and I'm not sure it's always warranted when it happens) but if you can't give a promotion, at least you can fight stagnation.

Quality is the Bulwark Against Production Support

The other thing you can do is something I've touched on before. Push for quality, not just dates. In IT if you have lots of production support, you might think it's because the users are stupid or computers are unreliable. Both of those might be true, but the heavy production support is actually an indicator that you're paying for the sins of the past. All those corners you cut and sloppy crap you pushed into production, all those times you gave the business analysis phase the short shrift, all those times you cut training, or barked at developers to "do it fast rather than right" have come to haunt you now with systems that are counter-intuitive, brittle and cantankerous. The sad thing is that not only you are paying for the sins of the past, but it's likely these were someone else's sins. And we'll continue to make these same mistakes again and again in a problem endemic to the IT industry because of the decision-consequence gap. It's a gap that can only be closed by a managerial intervention that's probably never going to happen.

Stop Thinking in Binary

We also have this damaging philosophy in IT that there are two kinds of people, project workers and support workers, and that they are to be separated by a steel wall. That is a terribly narrow-minded and broken view that only leads to more production support. It contributes to the decision-consequence gap because the gap isn't just about management; developers too tend to view themselves in the projects vs support light. The "project" side tends to get more respect because those projects involve creating new code. But having been on both sides [, at least until someone deletes the thread], I believe you become a better developer when you are forced to see how users are receiving your product. That means rotating among both the project and support sides. One flaw of only being on the project side is that you don't learn from your mistakes because, thanks to the decision-consequence gap, you don't have to see them. That flaw leads to another: you make the same mistakes repeatedly, and you're constantly looking to try new technologies rather than perfect every day techniques []. Again, developers left to their own devices will continue to game the system and stay on the irresponsible "I can have sex and never worry about raising the child" path.

Management that is smarter than this will find ways to change this; and not necessarily with a whip. Find ways to incentivize creation of more rounded developer and a fairer distribution of work types.

You're Doing It Wrong

Of course I'm not holding my breath here waiting for a great manager to fall from the sky like Thor and fix problems with his magical PMBOK hammer. But if the industry won't change, then I'll stay a consultant instead; playing the game instead of letting it play me. I'll help cover for your past sins, but it's going to cost you. You can outsource, but that might only make it worse; you'd better be gone before your boss finds out it's not really cheaper to do it that way. I'm hope I'm not being unreasonable here and to be fair, employees have to come halfway too and accept that work is sometimes about doing stuff that isn't always fun. Everyone should share in the work.

At the same time, I have a foolish hope that someday I'll find a company that gets IT and how to manage people. I'm more than happy to come back to the fold if management can fix the employee situation.

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