As a first-time manager one of your responsibilities is to find ways to improve daily teamwork. People may cut you slack in the beginning, but remember: time won’t stop until you are ready. Teams rarely work alone, so your squad works in a project setting, with daily connection to several groups from various departments with different interests.
You are besieged with pressure from all sides; you must prove you are a valued member of your team, worth every penny - no matter what. If this is the case you easily admit that you must have the ability to influence others. If you don’t have formal authority as a newbie, that does not mean you have no political leverage upwards!
The term of ‘political awareness’ probably has a negative sentiment if you are not really into the original meaning of it. But let’s dive in!
Corporate and Individual Interests
If you want to get something out of your team you need allies and good relations upwards. That does not mean to be a teachers’ pet. In most cases it is sufficient to assess the network of relations based on corporate and individual interests. These two notions are not the same, so let’s analyze them further.
Corporate interest means kind of benefits, concepts or actions that are the best for the firm, typically in the long run. This usually comes in a form of commercial benefits for the company or its key stakeholders (like executives and shareholders).
Individual Interest of a manager is rarely adjusted to the exact same direction which can cause conflicts. You have to recognize what is behind the curtain. If you cannot sense the difference, it will negatively affect your ability to influence. Finding yourself against a black belt manager with a high-stake conflict can cause you anxiety with good reason. Getting a steadfast executive with an inflated ego and a bit of malice can be daunting as well.
If you want to run an idea past the organization you have to recognize the main stakeholders with formal and informal authority. Remember, a subject matter expert could have better authority than a director sometimes so no need to linger among top level managers all the time.
Having influence on a co-worker means having influence on his surroundings
Imagine the case when you want to achieve something that is against others’ interests. You have done network analysis (This means you know who is who and you are exactly aware of corporate and individual interests in this regard!) and realized you have no connection to the executives in power. Capture their associates and get them as allies! You can look for the possibilities of cooperation and sow seeds in their mind. During work you can dole out some thought among them and during that you can learn what really drives them. It’s rarely connected with the corporate aims, but the most efficient track is to go forward and persuade along the way! Influencing a co-worker means having influence on his surroundings including your target (an executive)!
Imagine a situation when your team need a formal consent or a work breakdown (also known as WBS, or Work Breakdown Structure), but it is (or a part of that) against entrenched interests at your team level or a bit above. You need to have the main decision makers to endorse your standpoint. It cannot work if you have to convince them in public. Publicity can easily erode the possibility to learn the interrelation of corporation and individual interests. If there are more managers in power, it is better to have a sit-down separately at the assessment stage of problem definition. Why? First, you can build trust via paying close attention and you can learn their honest thoughts more deeply as well. It surely helps you negotiate on a solid information basis, take the lead and ruin every futile attempt to drag on the debate.
Let’s assume that there is a common understanding about the nature of problem and you succeed to keep the unnecessary managers or their aspirations out from the negotiation and decision-making process… and now, it’s time to have your team’s members to appeal to the decision makers for guidance or ask for formal consent which is the best possible solution affected by you, but please remember: It’s a double-edged sword to have impact this way. It’s not for first-timers and sometimes a bit risky. It works only when you need to influence at your team’s level, or a bit above. If it’s highly above then you may have no close work connections to the executives or cannot sense what kind of interests work behind the scenes. You easily pick the wrong guy to tangle with in this regard. The usability of these also depends on the nature of the project, information and seniority you have and the overall corporate culture.
Think about the lobbyist around US Government and you easily find the similarity. In telco or IT industry we rarely call managers a lobbyist, but sometimes it’s closer to the truth!
Business departments or just a customer (depending on the corporate structure) often put real strain on a new manager who is not really aware of the corporate setting and what others expect from him. He may feel that all of the expectations should be met, but it’s typically not true. He has to manage only the requirements which have true corporate value or regulatory background. He can do this only when he is aware of the main interest of key individuals as mentioned above. But sometimes this is not enough and intense pressure can force managers to be straight down the line. In a politically affected corporate culture putting your card’s on the table holds a lot of possibilities for self-important managers, and their irrelevant demands to find you. In this case you simply have to share less information.
If you are still into political awareness, let’s see the topics from a different perspective, created by Harvard Business Review.
Retaining information can spare time and can keep your teams’ commitment
A new manager in a bank got a team operating with 200 man-day capacity per month. There is a development portfolio containing 10 000 man-day work for 7 business departments. New demands of 200 man-days turn up every month! You can be sure some of the business departments will be dissatisfied with the pace of delivery (or quality). Your budget is tied, handling escalation turns into your daily routine and you feel top managers will weigh you down. It could be a way to share all of your work the developers are doing, estimations and dependencies to show that you are really busy? But who cares? Customer needs delivery not drama.
It’s better to have PMO to handle priorities, or a Product Owner to prevent escalations. You can refer to external dependencies like “management priorities” which can be a short cut in negotiation. You have to work and estimate with high reserves because of the changing priorities and technical difficulties.
To manage in a straightforward way means no time spent on unforeseen problems.
You will have no influence on deadlines if you are always explaining your current work priorities detaining your team. Rather try to provide your team some kind of isolation to reach utter focus and zero distraction. Transparency of your development backlog also gives you the risk of constantly feeding your clients with information about the status quo – thus making them occasions to question these again and again. Try to manage the changes (timing/business scope, estimations, interrelations and dependencies) in a way that is not fully transparent to them.
Remember: clients need solutions as quick as you can deliver it, but you need system stability in the long run to prevent errors and technical debts (to avoid unnecessary tasks).
We all know that different tasks need different skills. Sometimes you need a general system analyst, a business analyst, a solution architect or sometimes a specialized subject-matter expert like an ERP system analyst or a SAS consultant. Could you imagine a situation when one of your introverted team member is free and there is pressing demand to fulfill a task saturated with loads of communication and conflict? Do you think that only professional expertise is the only factor to take into consideration? Of course not - you will protect your colleague, because this can cause a lot of discomfort in this case, without sneaking out of responsibility.
Again, clients are interested mostly in a quick and inexpensive delivery, long time commitment and work enthusiasm are not factors to consider in this regard. You can easily admit that it would be better not to have these conversations, but do you want to kill a valuable member’s motivation or not resulting in resignation? Do it, but learn from it: Sometimes less information is more, concealing information can spare you time, it saves your teams’ commitment and gives you the opportunity to create real career paths for your colleagues.
Scope Control gives you the ability to have reserves during mid-flight Scope control is also critical, because it allows you have change requests (CRs). These will bring you the opportunity to rediscuss deadlines again and again, and accumulating some reserves for your team along the way. Typically, you encounter huge difficulties when trying to meet the deadline, because there are constantly changing business requirements. When the project starts to operate under strain, corporate culture - or leaders working there for a long time having a bonus target - wants you to think that project success and the success of IT delivery are the same. This psychological trap can easily force to accept every modification with the original conditions, giving nerve-racking ordeals to you team.
Communicating CRs consistently with no offence enables you to have more stakeholders as your allies and it can create an atmosphere where pressure is there for also the clients side. This sounds nice in theory but very hard to achieve in practice. Assertive communication techniques, persuasion skills, negotiation tactics, personal power development can be good tools to learn more and cultivate in yourself.
Remember: If a project forces you to accept conditions which would normally be absolutely unacceptable then you should create a project setting where there are proven and accepted external preconditions that the project is not supposed to accomplish. If you do so, and the project fails, your team’s achievement and reputation is somewhat protected.
External developments work at any level, but what kind of external preconditions do you have to deal with? In IT development the first is having a definite business demand with no significant business ambiguity. Without it you should not accept any deadline, or create low-level estimations as a project manager. Sometimes a business case could be a threatening issue before starting a project or creating a project charter. If you are a developer, you cannot create a webservice without an accepted interface definition and so on. IF there are too many dependencies to manage then you are better off having an accepted lead time based on them. In other case you accept a deadline, but it probably fails because of the interrelation of dependencies.
Lead time with high reserves rarely needs a revision, deadline always does.
Project Timing based on Parkinson law
If you work for a company where most of the projects cannot meet the initial deadline then this paragraph is for you!
There is an old adage that goes like this: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. The term was first published by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a humorous essay he wrote for “The Economist” in 1955. There is no evidence that all of the executives in your PMO is aware of the adage, but sometimes project managers make timings based on it. It means they create a project schedule with almost zero reserve with no consideration of critical paths and interrelation of the subtasks. Almost everybody knows the timing is not supported by professional judgments – but it’s rather based on the management desire.
(For example, to meet a regulatory requirement.)
In this case, technicians or developers may get a deadline and pressure to reach the business scope no matter what. Everybody knows that in lack-of-time situations, chaos easily erupts and quick win (also known as band-aid solutions) emerge that won’t last for the long run or will demand high maintenance.
So please keep in mind the planning fallacy: our original bias makes us predict that things will take less time and money than they actually do. If you are forced to handle these kinds of obligations then you better hone your influencing skills or focus on CRs and create some margin of safety for your team as you have read above. If you do so, and you could ensure normal work conditions despite the demanding project, you are supposed to avoid creating technical debts which are mostly a consequence of incompetency or the lack of managerial skills. And yes, sometimes unavoidable external factors – but stop making excuses too often.
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