Networking

Talking Shop: Shift focus from project details to work processes

Avoid looking too closely at the details when taking on a project.

By Steven Watson

You've been promoted from a LAN technical expert to an administrator or manager of a LAN unit. All of your hard work has paid off, and you are being recognized for the outstanding employee that you are.

But once the glow of achievement begins to subside, the reality of the challenge ahead emerges. Questions creep in, such as:
  • Will I really like being responsible for the work of other people?
  • Will I lose touch with advances in LAN technology because I am so busy managing the unit?
  • Do I really have a vision of the way things should be and, if so, what is it?

One of the biggest challenges a new IT or technical manager can face is avoiding micromanaging, or focusing on the technical details of a project to the point of suffocating subordinates and dampening their enthusiasm and initiative. IT managers can do several things to reduce the temptation to micromanage subordinates.

Broaden your view
New IT managers will most likely be successful by shifting their focus from a micro to a macro perspective. Technical experts, in general, are successful based on their individual accomplishments. However, managers are usually judged by how well programs or projects are doing as a whole and by how well they communicate with others within an organization. To be successful, managers must shift their focus from the accomplishment of specific tasks and activities to ensuring the overall success of the project or group and building positive relationships and communication channels with subordinates and others in the organization.

Scenario: Failure to communicate
A new LAN administrator in a medium-size company was accustomed to being successful based on his technical expertise, so he gave that aspect of his work high priority. Unfortunately, he did not focus on relationship-building with people. He worked hard to establish and maintain a technically outstanding LAN system, but people did not acknowledge or appreciate it. He did not give high priority to establishing positive relationships with subordinates and people in other areas of the organization who were “customers” of the LAN system.

Without the trust that results from good communication, morale among subordinates was poor, and others in the organization did not feel that their concerns were understood or given enough attention by the administrator. Although the LAN was technologically sound, the LAN administrator lost his managerial position. The moral of this story is that technical managers can’t succeed without broadening their focus from project details to the needs of people and the overall welfare of the project or group, no matter how good their technical skills.

Put your linear thinking cap in storage
Most technical people are trained to think in logical and methodical ways, so it's often more difficult for them to make the transition to management. Such individuals are usually able to think in a linear or consistent manner, but when placed in a group, the logical progression of ideas and reactions disappears.

The wide range of personalities, backgrounds, experiences, and agendas creates a seemingly chaotic environment. Priorities may shift on a moment’s notice, and the enormous amount of information that needs to be processed by a manager can seem intimidating. New IT managers often react to this chaos by attempting to control people and the work environment to conform to their expectations and preferences. This approach is not only futile but will ultimately result in discouragement and eventual reassessment of management as a career choice.

Scenario: People and priorities
A newly promoted IT manager in a government agency was stymied by her inability to bring her work unit together as a group. It seemed that they went out of their way to be disagreeable and uncooperative. She believed that the best way to manage projects was to methodically plan out expected milestones and results until goals and objectives were achieved. For some reason, things never worked out the way they were planned. Confused by what she was dealing with, she sought out an experienced manager who had worked in the organization for more than 20 years. After she explained her dilemma to the senior manager, he asked her two questions: “Are you sensitive to factors outside your work unit that could affect your ability to manage your projects?” and “Do you sufficiently understand the individual characteristics and interpersonal relationships of your staff to be able to predict their reactions to your supervision?”

Since the IT manager had to answer no to both questions, she began to see that management extended far beyond the systematic completion of milestones to understanding environmental and cultural conditions and processes within the organization that could enhance or sabotage her efforts to succeed. The moral of this story is that the successful technical manager can make the transition from focusing on specific project details and thinking in a linear fashion to managing the impact of “chaos” in an organization by understanding people and their priorities.

Allow your staff to make mistakes
Technical people tend to achieve success through hard work and the motivation to be the best at what they do. A primary incentive for this strong work ethic is the fear of making mistakes. Mistakes can certainly compromise the success of a project or cause coworkers to think less of your skills. Although this drive to be competent all the time serves the technical expert well, it can become problematic for the new technical manager. Individuals usually have more control over their own actions. For example, a new IT manager may be accustomed to working late, double- and even triple-checking work, or poring through technical manuals to solve difficult problems. However, subordinates may or may not choose to handle problems in the same manner.

A supervisor can encourage, monitor, and even threaten the subordinate to handle tasks and situations in a committed manner. However, the choice to excel continues to remain with the subordinate. An initial reaction of the new technical manager may be to stand over a staff member to make sure each step of a project is accomplished in a careful and outstanding manner. But although this approach may work initially, the new manager will quickly become overwhelmed, especially when the project or group is large.

More resources
To learn more about the issue of micromanagement, I recommend these books:

Final thoughts
Managers are ultimately judged by the overall success of their unit or group, the way they promote high subordinate morale and positive relationships with other units or groups, and how they demonstrate the value of their unit or group to the overall organization.

The effective technical manager will accept the lack of control over project details and will learn to control work processes within a unit or group. The focus shifts from managing details to managing processes, such as developing positive interpersonal communication and trusting relationships among staff members, creating an environment where workers can learn from their mistakes, and enhancing employees' understanding of how their work contributes to the overall success of the organization.

Questions for the author?
Steven Watson has 10 years of management experience. Through his work with IT staff and contractors, he has developed an understanding of the issues faced by IT managers and how their priorities differ from those of nontechnical colleagues. As a new manager in a technical environment, do you have a question you’d like him to address? Send it to us via e-mail or post it in the discussion below.

 
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