Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Managerial Moves

Any football fan understands there are some grey areas regarding the rules, a notorious one being the difference between an incomplete pass and a completed pass followed by a fumble. There is a nebulous period between the time a receiver touches the ball, and when he gains possession. If the receiver takes a hit after catching but then drops the ball, it is ruled an incomplete pass. However, if the receiver has caught the ball and gained possession, but then takes a hit and drops the ball, it is ruled a fumble, with potentially disastrous consequences. A lot can be riding on whether the receiver has been awarded possession.

So, how do the refs decide whether to award possession? This is the grey area. Certainly the amount of elapsed time between catching and dropping the ball plays a role in deciding. How much the receiver may have juggled the ball is also taken into account. But a generally accepted guideline is, for possession to occur, the receiver must catch the ball and then make something called a "football move" -- which is still somewhat nebulous but at a more granular level. Sometimes, a football move occurs when the receiver has the ball and takes two steps; sometimes, it's when he tucks the ball under his arm and shifts his feet. Whatever the specifics, the idea is that the receiver must exhibit some palpable sign of controlling the ball.

It is similar, in other words, to the concept I will designate as the "managerial move".

This phenomenon is most often observable at the lower managerial rungs, with junior or rookie managers. It happens a lot when command and control within an organization are ill-defined regardless of what hierarchy chart might say -- at least for the purposes of a given project. Most junior managers are unsure of themselves (which is understandable) and greet each and every opportunity to appear managerial as if every meeting is the Super Bowl and they are Tom Brady. If you tell them to manage a fire hydrant, you will soon spot one standing over the hydrant with a clipboard and a pencil, wearing an intent look. Eventually, the hydrant will gain a reputation for having a bad attitude.

Like the football move, the managerial move is designed to make the player look like he's in control. And like the football move, it is hard to specify exactly what it is. However, like Supreme Court Justice Stewart said about pornography: it can't be easily defined, but we know it when we see it.

Example? A junior manager has emailed the big boss with a proposal to proceed directly with a technical solution, recommended by a vendor, involving massive and expensive changes to the server configuration. You were not copied on the email -- perhaps because you, as a high-level techie, have raised unwelcome questions about other solutions the vendor has proposed. But the big boss performs due diligence and forwards you the proposal, asking for your opinion. So, you work two hours late and respond by raising some questions, which prompts the boss to direct you to arrange a phone conference with the vendor. Only then do you get an email from Junior (your boss is cc'ed), stipulating that you need to invite "all of the players" to the phone conference -- because he doesn't "want a breakdown in communication on such an important issue". Never mind that the communication had already broken down in the first place when Junior bypassed you on the original email. You busted his play, and his reaction was to deny that a play had been attempted -- and not incidentally to hint ever so gently that you are the rogue and require some level of adult supervision. In short, this is a classic managerial move.

To provide assistance to a certain species of junior manager is to discover that the harder you work, the more bullets find their way onto his resume. This is probably why most of the senior techies you know are grumpy, terse, and matter of fact. Ronald Reagan once said you'd be surprised at what you can accomplish, if you don't care who gets the credit. And maybe the President of the United States can afford such a magnanimous attitude. The rest of us may occasionally need to point to an accomplishment or two without someone else hogging all the credit.

I'm not completely without compassion. The life of a junior manager can be unpleasant and uncertain, or so it appears to this techie. And many junior managers eventually get promoted and become good bosses, and what would we do without them? But just keep all this in mind the next time a junior manager for whom you don't work starts following you around with a clipboard.


Geronimo P Fudgemuffin said...

I noticed there were no COMMMENTS on this one. I have nothing of substance to add, but would like to say that Scott Adams ("Dilbert") makes a living off cartooning behaviors like those noted in this article. Behaviors that are obvious to everyone... except the perpetrators, who are just smart enough to know what they're doing, but consider their (ahem!) "covert" activities to be above the ability of their co-workers to discern. Wrong again, O egocentric political -climbing suck-up.

Robert Burns said, "O would some power the giftie gie us, to see ourselves as others see us."

And don't be fooled into thinking that Burns looked back over 70 years of life to cull his little gems. He died at just about the correct age to have been one of these junior manager types, yet he appears to have actually developed some gray matter at the top his brain stem in less than 40 years, a trick to which the clueless would do well to aspire.

Acute self-worth makes you above reproach, but only in your own eyes.

Lee said...

I like the Dilbert strip, mostly. Each strip is about the biggest dose of Scott Adams I can stand at one time. I've tried reading his books, and he doesn't strike me as someone I'd enjoy having a beer with.

It's tragically difficult to fool someone smarter than oneself. We have no idea how transparent we look to others. Burns was onto something.