Manage Better by Managing Less

Matt May included “Silhouettes” from selected authors in his new book: The Laws of Subtraction (shipping October 26th). I am honored to be included: the following my silhouette.

Early in my career, I had a supervisor ask me why I wasn’t working. I was at from my desk – not reading, not typing on my keyboard, not talking on the phone, not in a meeting, staring off into space, apparently just wasting time. I explained that I was thinking.

The busier we are, the more productive we are. Or so many managers think. It can be tempting to cram your days full of activity to show how hard-working and vital you are. Finding time to think is hard enough; maxing out your capacity makes it next to impossible. Everyone agrees taking time to think is wise. But I have rarely seen managers make it a priority. Managers will say they value it, but they cram schedules so full that they can’t really spend time thinking. Result: people are busy just being busy.

I never forgot that early lesson when I became a manager of a software development team. Software programmers seem to understand the importance of thinking. One of the secrets to successful programming is that it takes deep, uninterrupted thought.

My main focus when managing my software development team was to let the team be. My most important task was to ensure that the developers had a clear vision of our business aims, what the priorities were, then get out of the way and give people uninterrupted time to do their work.

Most of what I needed to do simply required listening, observing, thinking, and sometimes deciding. Action wasn’t high on the list. My goal was to intervene as little as possible, and then only when doing so would optimize the whole system.

I wanted to make sure the developers had an environment that allowed them to succeed: the resources they needed, the time they needed, coaching when they needed it, freedom from unreasonable demands, the opportunity to take risks, and protection when something didn’t work.

Still, I stepped in more than I wanted to. I’m still learning. And by managing even less, I know I’ll become more effective.

Act less, and act well when you do. You’ll make things better for everyone.

My new book, Management Matters, is available now. The book builds on the topics I have written about on this blog the last 8 years.

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5 Responses to Manage Better by Managing Less

  1. Hi John

    It surprises me just how true it is today that nobody is given time to think. Yet supposedly our economy realies upon knowledge work. Excessive activity is a sure sign that no one is actually thinking instead they are just reacting.

    If we want to get ahead and stay there as businesses we need to ensure that our people and ourselves as leaders have and take time to stop and think.

    Thanks for bringing up this important issue.

  2. I love your approach to management. I think we’ve all struggled from time to time with an “old school” boss. I often joke that if I just carried around a stack of papers in my hands, a phone on my ear, and a look of busy, I’d set a record for promotions.

    Your style is becoming more and more popular as leaders such as ourselves realize that output is more important than input. If a mechanic works on your car for 12 hours but it’s still broke you’d have a problem paying him 100 bucks. But would you have a problem paying him 100 bucks for 2 hours of work and a car that runs again? I wouldn’t.

    Great post. Thank you for being a good leader.

  3. Suzanne says:

    Busy being busy is right. When I worked as a project manager for a major financial services firm, our schedules were crazy busy. The person who got promoted the most often was someone who was also crazy busy. What I loved most about my manager however was that he let me run my own projects. I was not crazy busy. I went home on time. I never had any errors. At promotion time the crazy busy person was promoted. Interesting. Suzanne

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