Management and Momentum

There are many roles a manager needs to fill. The manager is accountable for the team’s goals, helping individuals perform, give feedback and measure performance, act as a mentor and a leader, make decisions and, well, more…

When I ask other managers how they see their role, the answers vary, covering some of the points I mentioned above and others as well. People who practice agile methodologies mention on many occasions that one of the important roles of a manager is to clear the path for the team, so they can do their magic.

While I agree with and can relate to most of the various roles, there is one aspect of the day-to-day managerial work which I didn’t get to hear much, and it’s about momentum.

Once things are in motion, it’s relatively easy to maintain movement (yes, you still need to clear the path so you won’t lose momentum), but it can be tricky to set them into motion. It can at times be even harder to increase the speed (somehow slowing down usually gets done by itself).

As a mangaer, you are where people look to. If they see you moving, they are more likely to move. If they see you just sitting there they may think it’s ok to slow down a little. If they see you running and they trust you know what you’re doing, chances are they will run as well.

I’ve been in companies where from time to time they’d gather an all-hands meeting and say ‘we’re facing some challenging goals, it’s going to be a tough period, brace your selves and let your spouses know: you’re going to be working hard’. Much more often than not, this ‘fake sense of urgency’ achieved exactly the opposite. I worked hardest when the leaders of the organization made me feel they are invested in the goal at least as much as I am (and much more). And it’s not just about staying late or working weekends, it’s about constant involvement and actual care about what’s going on. You can’t be managing from your closed-door office. You want to be out there, in the trenches, with the people. You are the flywheel.

Spoked_flywheel_animation.gif

As the flywheel, you begin spinning. Your subordinates will catch momentum, spin around you and spin themselves. Their subordinates will follow. Sounds easy, right?

Momentum is a great thing to have – in physics it’s directly related to energy, I think it’s true for management as well.

[

if you’re interested, kinetic energy is calculated like so:

E_k=frac{1}{2}cdot Icdot omega^2,

where ω is the angular velocity, and I is the moment of inertia of the mass about the center of rotation. The moment of inertia is the measure resistance to torque applied on a spinning object (i.e. the higher the moment of inertia, the slower it will spin after being applied a given force)

[from Wikipedia]

].

Team of Stars or a Star Team

One of the more exciting experiences I can think of as a manager is the opportunity to build a new team. Besides the chance to face new challenges, it has this feeling of going back to school after the summer vacation, with new books, new equipment and the feeling that you can be the best at what you do (well, now that you have new pencils!). In reality, though, recruiting in general and creating a team from scratch (or almost scratch) specifically is a very challenging task, and mistakes in that process could have a major impact later.

Even before you begin recruiting, you need to come up with a job description – besides being the baseline for the expectation setting between you and the candidates, the job description also serves as an initial sieve for the incoming flow of CVs. Set the requirements too high, and you may be losing good candidates (either because they feel intimidated or because they don’t meet a requirement you may be willing to compromise on – if you knew they were great in all the other stuff), but set them too low and you may be swamped with irrelevant CVs and spend most of your valuable time talking to the ‘wrong’ people. In order to understand where the bar should be set, I think there’s an important question you need to ask yourself – are you looking for a team of stars, or are you aiming to create a star team?

I think the answer is not trivial. Moreover, there are probably points in time where you’d be leaning towards recruiting stars and other times where you’ll be recruiting people to build a ‘star team’ (where no one in the team is necessarily a ‘star’ on his own).

For example, in a startup environment, probably in the early stages, where the team is very small, technological excellence is in many cases key for success and certain superb aspects of the product might be the difference between success and failure, you may want to have the star people who will be able to solely solve in innovative methods any given problem and make this one great feature which will make your product more attractive than the competition.

I think that once the team grows it both becomes harder to maintain an all-star team (there is more maintenance that needs to be done and less innovative work, there are increasing amounts of bugs that need to be solved, there’s more documentation to be created, and so on), and delivering quality software based on the customers requests, on time, is at least as important as innovation. The ability to share tasks, knowledge and ownership of a large codebase becomes critical to the team’s functionality. At this point you’ll still want to hire excellent engineers, but I believe you’ll want those who will appreciate the chance of being a part of something great, knowing that the fact that they belong to a star team actually makes them better engineers in the long run, giving them the chance to become that star engineer in (hopefully) their own startup in the future.

I enjoy working with smart people, as it gives me the chance to keep learning every day. I enjoy it less when the brilliant people I came to work with turn out to be brilliant jerks . I don’t think it’s an easy decision when you need to choose between a brilliant jerk and ‘just’ a great engineer. It becomes even harder when the brilliant guy, who already knows every bit and byte in your code has a negative effect on the entire team. If you want a great team, I doubt there’s room for that kind.

My bottom line is probably obvious by now – I believe in synergy, in potential and in giving the right people the chance to grow. I’ll take that star team, thank you.