A new minister delivered a powerful sermon one Sunday. His congregation was impressed and looked forward to the next service. But the minister repeated the sermon the following Sunday, and the next Sunday, and the Sunday after that. Finally, a few folks got up the nerve to ask the minister why he was repeating the sermon.

The minister replied, “I have a good reason. I’ve decided to repeat the sermon every week until you demonstrate that you’ve learned what I’ve been saying.”

I heard that anecdote some time ago and I’ll admit I’m not sure of the source. But it demonstrates a strategy that I wish more IT managers would follow.

Of course, a good IT manager has to master many skills: problem solving, juggling priorities, finding and developing talented employees, motivating a team and keeping it on deadline, just to name a few.

In this column, I want to talk about another attribute that all good technical managers need: the willingness to say what needs to be said—and then to say it again and again. I call it the “repetition imperative.”

Some things just aren’t rocket science
Since most IT managers came up through the ranks working as technology professionals themselves, they tend to think of managing as a type of puzzle. According to this model, the key to success is figuring out how to solve the puzzle. Then it’s just a matter of implementation.

Unfortunately, in many cases, problem solving won’t help, for the simple reason that you already know the solution. The truth is that finding the right answer is often less difficult than implementing the solution.

That’s where repetition comes in. To be successful, a technical manager ends up repeating himself or herself. That’s because some of the people you manage need to hear some things over and over.

This is not because your employees are stupid—far from it. In fact, they often know the solution to the problems they bring to you but need you to remind them of the direction they already know they need to take.

Here’s an example. Suppose one of your employees complains about a coworker who is consistently underestimating the time required to complete various tasks, causing the team to regularly miss deadlines.

The first question that any good manager would ask is: “Have you talked to the employee about this problem?” You ask that question, despite the fact that you probably know the answer in advance.

Now let’s look at another situation. Suppose you’re running a project team for a custom application development effort. At the project kickoff meeting, you explain to the group how important the deadline is and how you can’t let it slip. When your team runs into difficulties, you might restate how important the project is to your organization. What purpose does the repetition serve in this case?

  • It keeps the team members motivated, reminding them of the reason for their efforts.
  • It keeps them on target to meet the delivery date.

In general, you repeat things for three reasons:

  • To emphasize a statement’s importance.
  • To explain a task or instruction that may be difficult to understand. People often need repetition when they are attempting difficult tasks.
  • To protect yourself by documenting that you were providing proper oversight.

Overcoming employee objections to manager repetition
Some employees don’t like to be told things more than once and will actually resent your attempts to remind them of something you’ve already discussed. My answer to that scenario is to say, “I know you don’t like hearing this again, but part of my job as a manager is to remind you of things you already know.”

Besides, the truth is that most of us have to hear things more than once to have them really sink in. It’s human nature. By repeating certain key messages to your reports, or by asking them the same questions about the projects they work on, you eventually get them to internalize those messages or questions and become better employees.

Also, I would like to point out that repeating yourself isn’t always about tough work projects or deadlines. Sometimes repetition can demonstrate concern. For example, suppose one of your employees comes to you and says that he or she is having a personal problem at home. During that conversation, it would be natural for you to tell the employee to feel free to ask you for help when needed.

In the weeks that follow the meeting, you notice that the employee is still struggling. You could say to yourself, “Well, I made my offer of assistance. If he/she doesn’t take me up on it, that’s not my fault.”

However, a good manager would approach the employee a second or third time and say something along the lines of, “Look, I know I’ve said this before, but remember that you don’t need to go through this alone. If you need some help, or just someone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Most employees in that situation would not be bothered by your repetition but instead would be grateful for your offer of assistance.

Whatever the reason, when appropriate, dare to repeat yourself. Employees will be better equipped to identify the objectives that are most important to you and the organization.

Has this theory worked for you?

Have you repeated important instructions during an important project? Did the repetition help keep the project on track? When is repetition not enough? Post a comment to this discussion and enter our weekly contest.