Technical management is a difficult task, and last time I checked, moving up from the ranks didn’t come with a manual on building relationships or creating channels for communication. When you feel like you’re losing a grasp on the day-to-day goings on in your department, try some of these practices to stay in the loop.

1: Create a resource for everyone
One way to ensure you are in the loop is to make your own. You can easily create informal forums for exchanging ideas that can benefit your team. You’re providing a resource while getting valuable information about your team.

For example, create a department-wide mailing list that is focused on useful Web site resources. As people post their contributions and participate in discussions, you can see who is familiar with what content, and you can use the sites offered as a source of relevant technical information. This strategy literally puts you on the same page as your employees.

To keep discussions going, change the topic every few weeks. If a topic doesn’t spark a response, look for something else that might be more helpful to your developers. Publicize the new resource and try to keep an archive available for reference.

Of course, this provides only background information, but it will give you a feel for the terrain in your department. To get more directly relevant details, try something a little closer to home.

2: Facilitate peer reviews
The general consensus in most departments I’ve worked in or managed is that touchy-feely group meetings are a waste of time. This doesn’t have to be the case if you actively manage the discussion, and try to focus on information that will be helpful to the team.

Once every few weeks, hold a meeting that gives everyone a chance to discuss what he or she is working on and get input through group discussion. In order to keep employees serious about this effort, it’s important to facilitate. Give each person a turn to speak, and don’t let anyone railroad their peers.

To get things started, talk about what you’ve been doing, what you’re currently working on, and things that you see coming down the pipe. Ask specific questions about these activities to solicit feedback. Find out if anyone sees potential issues, or has post mortem style comments about the way something was handled.

Next, go around to each person and prompt him or her through the same type of summary. Ask the group general discussion questions about each person’s work. Again, ask what went well, what didn’t, and what people would have done differently. Find out if there are unresolved issues, or if upcoming work presents challenges that a little group brainstorming might overcome.

If you keep this meeting engaging, and only invite people from within the department to attend, a lot of issues will come out in the open that you might not have been aware of. After holding a few of these collaboration meetings, you might begin to see patterns that represent a problem with internal processes or between individuals.

Discuss these patterns as you notice them, as well as any trends that indicate that certain practices work well. Everyone will gain if you keep things focused on development and don’t let chatter digress to less productive topics.

3: Management by walking around
Management by walking around was one of the first principles I learned while studying project management. That being the case, it makes me wonder why so many managers get it wrong. This practice is not intended to be a way to look over your developer’s shoulder. It is supposed allow you to be more accessible—an extension of an open door policy.

Follow this advice to make this technique successful:

  • Don’t use this practice to assign work or issue important communications—your reports may begin to avoid your visits. You should follow standard procedure for critical updates.
  • This may seem like splitting hairs, but don’t sound like a broken record when you arrive at someone’s desk. If you ask a canned question, you’ll get a canned response.
  • When you visit someone’s workspace, be courteous. Try not to interrupt people working together and respect an employees’ time by keeping your visits to under 5 minutes.
  • Find out what people need or if there is anything you can do to help resolve issues, but be careful not to overreact. When someone mentions an issue, don’t make them regret it by assuming that they want you to take action. Explicitly ask if they would like your help resolving matters. If you get too reactionary, people will stop telling you what’s really going on.
  • Don’t make this your only management technique. Visiting your developers once every day or two is sufficient to keep on top of activities and issues. Always leave room for people to come to you if they need to.

4: Fraternize with other managers
Another, somewhat dubious, source of information can come from your peers, especially those who seem in tune with their staff. Too often, the IT manager works in a vacuum with no idea what the common perception of his or her team is like. I don’t recommend stirring up a management-level rumor mill, but a few direct questions at an interdepartmental meeting about how your team’s work is being received can be invaluable.

Of course, any feedback you get this way must be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, most likely hearsay based on hearsay. You really must fight the urge to get reactionary to this kind of information. But if there is a problem you were unaware of, it’s best to address it sooner rather than later.

You may not like to admit it, but perception does affect how your department is treated, and negative sentiments from outside your team can create turmoil within your group. The management-level information loop is one you can’t afford to ignore.

5: Use the old-school suggestions box
Finally, deploy a tool that’s been in use since the beginning of the employee-employer relationship—the anonymous suggestions box. This can easily take the form of a Web log, forum, or bulletin board.

Encourage people to use it, and make sure the system truly is anonymous. At team meetings, mention all suggestions you have received, no matter how ridiculous or trite. It may take a little while for people to get serious about using the suggestion forum, but promising to take action on one submission per week or month, and following through, is a great way to get honest feedback.

Sometimes, an anonymous system is the only way to find out about gripes people have with their peers, or even problems people have with you. Never go on a witch-hunt to find out who has made a comment. If you maintain a level of integrity and trust, this kind of system may cut through political correctness and fluff to get to the heart of issues your team would like to see resolved, or improvements that your staff wants to see deployed.

Get actively involved
The key to this advice is to get involved in the day-to-day happenings of your department from a variety of perspectives. These efforts may be time consuming, but they’re well worth it when successful in keeping you in touch with your staff. Being left in the dark can get you blindsided by personnel or productivity issues and will lead to a short stint as manager. This advice, when coupled with normal work monitoring activities such as code reviews, status reports, etc,. will help you build a relationship with your team and position you to be better able to guide their development.

How do you stay in the loop?

What strategies have you used to stay in the loop inside your shop? Post your suggestions in the discussion area or send an e-mail to our editors.