Make the open door policy work for you

The open door policy has become almost a management cliche, but not every manager is comfortable with it. Scott Robinson examines the pros and cons of this effective but demanding and time-consuming policy to help you decide if it's right for your shop.

The “open door” policy has become almost a management cliche. “Empowerment” of the hands-on workforce is more an employee entitlement than a manager’s choice, and senior management often expects line management to maintain such a policy, whether a line manager is comfortable (or effective) with it or not.

If the open door policy has become more formal and more widespread, in some ways it has also become less effective. It can be a big drain on a manager’s time, and it tends to transform the manager’s role from authority figure to accommodator. So while today’s IT shop may have an open door policy, it may not be the manager’s preference, or even a good idea in itself, particularly in today’s rapid-fire development environment.

I’ll examine some of the benefits and distractions of the open door policy to help you decide if it’s right for your shop. I’ll also describe some of the open door policy’s unique advantages, as well as some strategies you can use to meet its demands.

Where does the time go?
My first manager was an amiable fellow named Raymond who liked to tell visitors, “The best manager is the one who reads the paper every morning.” By that he meant that a good manager has everything running smoothly enough that he has time to read the paper. This was much easier for a manager to do in that era, when all projects lasted many months, all programs were written from scratch, and industry competition was far less intense.

But in this age of rapid development and deployment, constant upgrading, and cutthroat competition, the manager who reads the paper every morning ought to be reading the Help Wanted ads. Whether or not a manager is philosophically on board with the “accommodator” role, the current IT environment requires it. It’s arguable that the line manager who doesn’t have an open door policy is failing to truly inhabit the role.

But it isn’t really that simple. IT now moves at the speed of business, and business moves faster today than ever. No longer does a manager concoct a project plan and then go to work implementing it, as if drawing up blueprints and then constructing a building. Software development today is far more organic, and a typical manager spends a great deal of time on revisions. Not only that, but the manager must also review the work many times, rather than upon completion, in keeping with the rapid development methodology. Though this isn’t a manager’s exclusive domain, it’s another huge drain on a manager’s time.

Where, then, does a manager make time for the constant intrusions invited by the open door? Consider also that, even without an open door policy, employees would likely consume more of a manager’s time today than in the past since issues requiring a manager’s attention are more frequent and pressing in today’s rapid development setting.

In short, if your door is truly open, will you have time to do anything else?

There’s no better way
It’s important to accept the fact that there are few tools more powerful or appropriate in the workplace today than the open door policy. Whatever the inconveniences and whatever the time cost, this policy benefits a manager in ways that simply can’t be duplicated with other management philosophies.

Any manager who is a disciple of the open door policy will attest that the information that comes through that door can’t be obtained any other way. Early warning signs of overruns on critical tasks show up in the faces of team members who pop in with a question. Personal productivity problems make themselves known in signs of stress in an employee who needs a break. Declarations of early success tell you when tasks are going to be completed ahead of schedule. Moreover, the informality you develop with your staff in this way will let you know when a team member is really on top of things and can afford to help out someone else, or clue you in that someone’s going to need some help before they themselves even realize it.

Simply put, an open door policy can give you huge amounts of significant information that you otherwise wouldn’t get or would get too late. Few assets are more valuable to your project planning than the information you gain by granting your staff unfettered access.

Delegating and budgeting
Before you throw your door open to all, you need to be sure you have the time to get everything done. There are two primary methods for carving out the time needed to maintain open door access: delegating duties and budgeting your time.

First, hand off as much of your plan revision and task review burdens as you possibly can. These essential management tasks are critical to a rapid development methodology, but they aren’t necessarily exclusive to you. On the contrary, it’s probably better for the team if you delegate such tasks to your senior people. Simply limit yourself to a higher level of review, and do it less frequently.

The clear counterargument to this step is that it removes you from the nitty-gritty of project progress. This is true, but it’s a self-correcting problem: Delegating your day-to-day review does pull you back from the project somewhat, but you’re getting right back into it by inviting your team members to consult with you freely. In essence, you’re simply repositioning yourself, and the same work is getting done, but you’re bolstering communication and your own problem-solving power as well as developing your team, and that’s the whole point. You’ll be more connected, not less.

Finally, you must cope with the sheer quantity of time consumed by a steady stream of unplanned interactions. The solution? Plan for them. This seems obvious on the face of it. When you’re putting a project schedule together, simply block out open door time for yourself. And do so liberally. Once you’ve spent some significant time in this mode, you’ll find that it isn’t as all-consuming as it might seem initially, and you’ll have a deeper appreciation of the benefits.

You may even become adept at predicting the amount of open door time certain projects will require and how much time a particular employee will consume. You’ll quickly learn that your junior programmer is going to need a half-hour or so every other day for some reassuring review of his code and that your senior lieutenant is going to want to consult with you each afternoon for 15 minutes or so regarding retasking decisions.

In the long run, you’ll think of this time in much the same way you think about any other day-to-day management duties: easy to anticipate and dispatch. Your open door will cease to be a burden, becoming an indispensable administrative help rather than a drain. Best of all, your team members will benefit from the increased confidence found in knowing that you’re there whenever they need you.

About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a 20-year IT veteran with extensive experience in business intelligence and systems integration. An enterprise architect with a background in social psychology, he frequently consults and lectures on analytics, business intelligence...

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