What to Manage: Workers? Or the Links Between Them?

I’ve been reading an article (HBR, Competent Management) which mentioned “obstacles that often prevent executives from devoting sufficient resources to improving management skills and practices”. The research they reported made it clear that better management skills lead to higher competitiveness and better performance all around. So, understanding obstacles to good management is a good idea.

What are the “obstacles”? First, overconfidence: managers think they’re already doing a good job. Another obstacle is that many managers can’t make an objective judgment about how well things are really going. The article included several other obstacles, but the whole list made me recall the most frequent problem I encountered in my career as a management consultant: managing the people and their activities. That’s not what needs to be managed.

I learned about that obstacle very early in my career, from the CEO of a non-profit firm. I saw a need for better management practices – aligning people on goals, measures, tracking and reporting. Two of his groups were making mistakes in the products and communications they were sending out to the firm’s members, prospects and customers and the reason was they were not collaborating with one another at all. When I suggested to the CEO that it would be useful if his Marketing team and his Communications Office got together at least once a month to clarify what each of them needed or wanted from the other, he banged his fist on his desk and shouted at me, “They should already know their jobs!”

Omigosh – he was watching what his people DO instead of what they DELIVER to others! Wow.

I was startled that he shouted at me, of course. But it was difficult to believe he did not have a process for ensuring that different units in his organization had an opportunity to talk with each other to stay updated on the products, services and communications they produced, sent out, and/or exchanged with one another. That would have given the Marketing team an opportunity to find out what the Communications Office was sending out to the firm’s prospective members, which would have helped Marketing do a better job of recruiting new members.

The CEO couldn’t see that the Marketing team needed information from the Communications Office and vice versa. Instead of supporting effective and goal-oriented communications between groups, he was watching what goes on inside those groups, as if they were stand-alone entities. As I went through my whole career, that was something I came to see as a frequent cause of misunderstandings in organizations. It was also a source of blaming “those people” for not knowing what they’re doing.

The mistake was the focus on what people were “Doing”, which isn’t what I was watching for at all. I focused on what moved from one group to another or went out to a customer: the products, services and communications that go out of Group 1 and into Group 9, then on to a user/customer. This allowed me to start at the end of the line, getting ideas from the Receiver of a delivery about how they evaluate or measure the quality and effectiveness of what they received. Then I could work with the Sender to obtain and use that feedback from the Receiver on a regular basis. I admit, it was sometimes touchy, especially if the Receiver was unhappy with what they got from the Sender. But I was the “ambassador”, carrying feedback to the Sender and assisting them in finding ways to put it to work. Ultimately, though, the two groups would establish a productive relationship and better products, services and communications were then available to all.

I was surprised to find that almost no manager watches the links between Senders and Receivers. They’re watching the “job”, the “work”, the people and their activities – but that’s not where the leverage is. Just sending something from one place to another doesn’t mean you’re getting the job done. You need to get the Receiver’s feedback on how well it worked. Was it the right quantity or size? Was the quality what they wanted or needed? Did it arrive on time? Does it perform properly, producing the effects the Receiver desired?

Getting feedback requires establishing a reliable communication link between Sender and Receiver, an easy management practice to implement. And, according to the article, good management practices will pay off in a big way, delivering better overall organization performance. That non-profit CEO actually learned how to improve the whole network of teams in his firm.

Even though that article I read didn’t focus on the links between groups, it had a lot of smart things to say about competent management. One valuable point was that companies think strategy is more important than management. I haven’t seen this discussed for over a decade, and the research reported in this article clarified that management competence is more important than strategy. It’s a good read, even if it is over 3 years old. Check it out: (HBR, Competent Management).

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