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Doers and Managers

Published: May 06, 2017

Some Saturday morning coffee rambling.

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What does the front-line doer see? Doers see “the work”.

The code and interface hold the history of shiny objects, hires, fires, and crunch time. Coherence gaps and manager-pragmatism manifest in “the work”. And that’s where the doer’s “work” happens … navigating those peaks, and valleys.

What happens when the doers speak up?

“You have to focus on what you can change and control” … “no one likes the complainer” … “things could be a lot worse” … “thanks for the feedback, I’ll get back to you”.

Which all makes sense. Because that is the manager’s world. The manager has a keen sense of organizational inertia, whirlpools, and grinding tectonic plates. It’s all about the dollars, cents, influence, and headcount. These elements are no less “real”, but they still feel abstract and frustrating to the doer. The doer laments …

“But you’re making silly sacrifices” … “why not wrap the management stack with tests, and run it like code?” … “why don’t we judge ideas by their merit instead of executive-buy in and proxy metrics?”.

Imagine a developer optimizing a program. They find a memory leak or a poorly implemented pattern. What do they do? Fix it. Deploy it. Now imagine the toxic relationship between executives that is sinking two departments (but somehow is at a stalemate), or the fall-out from the recent acquisition, or the steep price paid for rapid growth. These things assault the doer’s senses. If you were to draw these things in an architectural diagram, or view them in the output of a memory profiler, you’d silence a tech review audience in an instant.

The doer-developer is “dinged” immediately for errors, bugs, and slipped projects, while an organization can go years/decades without purging itself of systemic issues. To doers that seems massively unfair. To managers, that is to be expected, and equates to focusing on what you can control. “Stay practical and deal with today’s problems” they say. Doers see bad and irrational behavior “all the time” on the part of managers and leadership (the cat-herders), while managers see reticence, stubbornness, and laziness (the cats). And both are right, somehow.

One thing I know for sure … the doers experience cognitive dissonance and poor coherence at the source: “the work”.

Assuming the job market is good, both the manager and the doer have some agency when it comes to deciding whether they should stay. Which means, of course, that those remaining in the system are either 1) choosing to remain in the system because it benefits them, 2) are locked in the system, 3) are hoping that things will somehow change over time (the long game), or 4) waiting for their stocks to vest. When you join and organization, it is extremely important to keep that in mind. Things are the way they are for MANY reasons.

At the intersection of craft and commerce you will always see these eddies and whirlpools. Knowledge/craft workers are problem solvers, systems thinkers, game theorists, and explorers. Asking “why” and “what if” are in our blood. We’re stubborn and defiant by design (cats?). Now task a manager with being a teacher, a coach, a sounding board, a whip-cracker, a context builder, a facilitator, [on and on]. Sandwich them into the white-space of the organization. Not easy, huh? Easy to fail, right?

If you peel back a lot of the debates about software product development, you’ll end up at this tension. How much autonomy is given to the doers? Is the role of management to serve the doers, or serve “the business” ? What is the role of craft ? Who — managers or doers — are dispensable ? What is oversight? What happens when managers behave badly? Who decides if something is “good enough”? What does “moving up” mean, if you are a doer? Are we optimized for the middle-manager status quo, or for outcomes?

To the cat-herders, cats, inmates, guards, coaches, players, crafters, and merchants … happy Saturday morning coffee.

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