Management, Tech Life There are no pixies

Saying No

Somewhere in your third year of being a manager, the Management Pixies will appear in your office in a puff of sweet smelling black smoke. There will be three of them and one will be carrying a gorgeous black top hat.

“Are you LeRoy McManager?”

“I am.”

The Pixies laugh. “Congratulations, you have passed successful through three years of management and we’re here to reward you, but first, one question: Have you seen Spiderman?”

“The first one or the sequel?”

“The first one.”

“I have.”

The Pixies laugh again. “What do you think the primary theme is in Spiderman, LeRoy McManager?”

“Um, hmmmm… life’s a bitch?”

Strangely, the Pixies don’t laugh. “No, try again. It’s important.”

“Ok, well. Hmmmm… Peter’s Uncle said something they kept yammering about… OH I KNOW… With great power comes great responsibility.”

The Pixies cheer and the one carrying the top hat flutters over to you and drops it in your lap. It’s soft and strangely warm. The hat-bearing Pixie looks up at you and grins, “You wear this hat when you want people to know who you are.”

“And who am I?” You look down at the hat and notice massive white block letters on the front, they read:

I’M THE BOSS.

A slow grin stretches across your face and you realize the hat has the vague smell of your Mom’s fresh baked bread. That smell has always given you a strange sense of confidence and you know that whenever you wear that hat, you’ll been infused with that sense of confidence.

All three Pixies leap into the air giggling, “Good luck LeRoy McManager, use your hat well!” More laughing. Another puff of black smoke and they’re gone.

You lift the hat slowly in front of your face, staring at the white block letters, soaking in the sense of power the hat gives you, and you put it on.

You stride out of your office never once wondering why the Pixies were giggling so much because, well, you’re the boss. The first person sees you walk by in your cloud of confidence and, once you walk around the corner, you don’t hear them snicker because, again, you’re the boss.

They’re laughing because while they know you’re the boss, they can see the other side of the hat and it reads.

… FOR NOW.

Managers can lose it.

I mean it. There are managers out there who are absolutely punch drunk with power and if you’re working for one of these folks, I’m really sorry. You’re a resident of Crazy Town and that means you never know what random crap is going to happen next and that sucks.

Manager’s don’t start crazy. It’s an acquired trait and this article explores what I consider the single best tact you can take to avoid a trip to Crazy Town. Let’s tackle it first with a story from an employee’s perspective.

You’re merrily typing way at your keyboard, hard at work at the next great feature when your boss walks in and says, “Hey, can you work on a Gizzy Flibbet?”

“Uh, isn’t the Flubjam the key feature? I’ve barely even started it. It’s going to take awhile”

“Oh yes yes, we’re still doing Flubjam, but I need you to prototype the Gizzy Flibbet and I need it in two days for a meeting with the Execs.”

“Oooooooook, you’re the boss.”

“That’s right, I am the boss.”

Two days pass and you pour your soul into the prototype feature. Like all investigations, you discover each step of discovery takes three times as long as expected. The final prototype coveys the idea, but the process to create that result has left you drained and pretty sure finishing the remaining work is going to take a really long time.

When your boss walks into your office, you summarize, “Here it is. It looks good, it’ll take awhile and I’m now very behind on my Flubjam work. Can I please get back to it?”

Squinting her eyes, she runs her fingertips along the front rim of her top hat. She nods and stares, “Ok, THIS IS GREAT. Let’s do this AND Flubjam AND let’s hit the same schedule! Go us!” She turns and leaves the room leaving your office with the faint smell of bread.

I’ll recap. Your boss has just picked the one scenario that involves the most work and has the least chance of succeeding. You’re screwed and while you might think your boss has lost it, you are a co-conspirator in this disaster because you didn’t do one simple thing, you didn’t Say No.

Losing It

Manager don’t lose it simply because the Pixies showed up with the top hat, they lose it because those they work with forget to look at the back of of the hat. Remember:

  • Front: I’M THE BOSS
  • Back: … FOR NOW

Management is myth… just like the top hat. We, as employees, believe it’s there, so we treat these management types different. Yes, they sign the checks and they write the reviews, but, in a perfect world, those events are a function of your performance and not theirs, so it’s your job to not screw that up. I realize that’s a big fat stretch, but stick with me.

What is the real source of a manager’s perceived power? It’s the idea that they can make decisions. When the the team is stuck on a problem, they gather up in the manager’s office, present their case, and the manager nods and says, “Go that way!” More often than not, everyone is so happy to be past the logjam, they don’t even question whether it’s the right decision or not. “He’s got the top hat, so he must be right!”

No no no no. Also. No.

Managers lose it when they are no longer questioned in their decisions. When the team stops questioning authority, the manager slowly starts to believe that their decisions are always good and while it feels great to be right all the time, it’s statistically impossible. The most experienced managers in the world make horribly bad decisions all the time, the good ones have learned how to recover from their decisions with dignity, but, more importantly, help from the team.

Let’s take a look at Saying No from the manager’s perspective without any Pixies.

Back at the start-up, we were considering the move to a hosted model for our web application. I, in my third year of management, was in charge of presenting the pros and cons of such a move to the Executive Staff. We were in the middle of three huge deployments, so I decided to not put the necessary work into the presentation. I wrote it the night before and didn’t vet it with anyone. The end result asked more questions than it answered. It was a mess.

The Executive Staff went pretty easy on me. It was clear from their questions that they weren’t happy with my half-baked ideas and I left the room thinking I’d blown it.

The first person I saw after the meeting was Doug, one of my managers. Doug, “Rands, way to go! You hit it out of the park, man! When do we get started?” In my state of depression, Doug’s enthusiasm for my crappy presentation was intoxicating. Maybe I was being too hard on myself? Maybe it was a good presentation and I’m just being too sensitive? Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The second person I found was Randy, my other manager. His comment, “Ouch. That stung. What’s our recovery plan?”

Sure, I wanted to punch Randy, but he was spot on. I’d blown it and any other conclusion was a load of crap. The irony in all of this is that Doug believed he was doing the right thing by supporting me, but he was only eroding his credibility with me by not telling it straight. Think of it like this, if I’d swallowed the Doug Happy Pill, I would’ve done nothing to recover from my failed presentation and I would have looked like an idiot to the Execs.

What I did do was swallow the Bitter Randy Pill and completely redo the presentation along with the help of my managers. We presented a week later and actually did hit it out of the park. That’s with the truth gets you… progress.

No Versus The Truth

Randy didn’t Say No, he told me the truth, but I’m leaving this article entitled “Saying No” because I think it’s harder to contradict your boss than to tell the truth. Saying No forces an idea to defend itself with facts. Sure, no one really wants to hear their idea is crap. It’s hard to Say No and it’s even harder to Hear No, but who do you want to work with? People who are going to help you refine your direction or ones who will merrily follow your downward spin to Crazy Town?

As with every job, your success as a manager is the end result of innumerable decisions. While the front of your top hat reminds everyone that you’re the one making the decisions, the back of the hat reminds everyone else that, more importantly, you’re the one responsible for those decisions.

For Now

12 Responses

  1. “The first one are the sequel?”

    Perhaps it should read differently?

  2. JohnO 11 years ago

    I really enjoy saying no to a client, and watching their face go nuts. “I’m the client, I’m paying you to do what I say!”. Just make sure that when you say no to a client (different than mananger), you have hard facts as to why doing X will be bad for thier bottom line, AND you’ve gotta have a better answer for solving the problem (X is usually a symptom, not a problem)

  3. Bryce 11 years ago

    Rands,

    My mother works in printing, and as with any field that is rushing to catch up with technology (not just IT, but advances in what you can do with printing presses and the likes), she encounters a whole lot of headaches rushing between impatient clients, demanding executives, and worst of all, the contractors stuck in the middle.

    She recently took a promotion to be the assistant office manager (a promotion which brought about a lot of tension due to her being over 40, due to her gender, and due to the relatively short time she’s been with the company). She’s been in management before, but that was as a project lead. Now she’s managing an entire office of project managers and sales staff. On top of that she’s doing extensive testing for the most advanced billings/invoicing system in the world as far as printshops go. This has caused major headaches, as it was all developed internally and tested internally as well, by the staff who would be using it on a daily basis.

    I bring this up because a few months ago I introduced her to your websight (with a small disclaimer “Not to visit jerkcity,” she’s pretty much Ziggy and Garfield only) with the message “Read his works on management. He works in IT, but what he has to say applies to what you will be doing.”

    She’s been reading what you’ve written, slowly but surely, with occasionaly poking and proddings from me, and updates on when you have written a new article. She even forwarded it on to her boss.

    I relay this because she has taken to heart some of what you have had to say. What you have to say is very universal, it has a very human element to it which managers, be they in IT or shop foremans, can take to heart. I myself read to have a better understanding of what managers may be thinking at any given moment, and I can say that your articles on the organics/mechanics and the types of workers have helped me to understand more of the innerworkings of my job.

    “Don’t be a prick” indeed. Despite the contention that so-called “professionals” might take with such advice, I can think of no better words for managers and employees alike to take to heart.

    Thanks for all the insight. As always, your thoughts, whether random passing side posts on NADD or full-blown “How not to get yourself and your team fucked on the job” articles, make for a very enjoyable read.

    Bryce

  4. Amen to Bryce’s comments. I can’t read your site while enjoying any sort of beverage because it’s almost guaranteed to come cartoonishly shooting out when you’ve pegged something spot on. This article in particle. See, I left Crazy Town about a month ago after 5 years with a power mad CEO who doesn’t listen to his CIO, COO, or anybody else for that matter. One day I’m humming along on key features for a new web app and the next he’s in my office ranting and raving about some sh!t about as important as Joel Spolsky’s blue folders. Then two days later he wants to know why the features aren’t finished.

    I guess what I’m saying is…you’re dead on and in my case, the grass really is greener.

  5. BTW, that’s supposed to say, “This article in particular.” not “This article in particle.”

    I don’t know why I use preview at all. I only notice mistakes after I hit post.

  6. Michael Pearson 11 years ago

    Great article. I consider myself lucky enough to work under a guy who understands this completely and impresses on new hires that if we think he’s out of line, we should say so.

    In return, while I regularly argue and pick at my boss’s decisions, I give it an undercurrent of “In the end, it’s your call”. If he’s willing to take the time to argue with me about something then I’m willing to not be a dick about it.

  7. Paulo Köch 11 years ago

    Fuzzy article, but I guess it passes the point along.

    I really think it’s a matter of someone’s surrounding culture. When it (the culture) doesn’t value hearing to different opinions and preponderations, you’re really going to land on Crazy Town.

    And the worst is, when you land there this way, you’ll find it quite pleasing.

  8. Floid 11 years ago

    On the topic of management, methodology, and horror stories, you might find _On the Edge: the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore_ amusing. Just ordered a copy for a former Apple guy and realized it might be your thing. (See also: “Deathbed Vigil” DVD, or the “Amiga Forever 2005” package containing same and more.)

    I’d provide the Amazon link to the book, but your software thinks that makes me a robot.

  9. Scott 11 years ago

    I think that any boss who tries not to be an emperor should know that “Oooooooook, you’re the boss.” means “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, but since every time I tell you that you yell at me and deny me a promotion because I am ‘not a team player’, I have learned that it is best to say ‘Oooooooook, you’re the boss.’ and blindly follow your idiotic directions because I have a family to support and need this job.”

  10. I enjoyed the article, but noticed no profound conclusion. You identify the value of honesty, something rammed down our throats in grade school and throughout life. It is of course important, but you fail to tie it uniquely to management. All you say in your article is that yes-men help nothing; to me that seems common sense.

  11. Aaron Digulla 10 years ago

    In an article “Managing Your Manager”, they also talked about this very situation. Their advice was to find a way to say No that the other party can accept it.

    In my case, this meant to create a five page PowerPoint presentation. On the first page, I described the problem. On the next four pages, I presented possible solutions with pros and cons.

    Interestingly enough, what I thought the best solution turned out to be inferiour to something else which I developed during the creation of the presentation!

    In the end, I gave a ten minute presentation.

    The managers in the room were so impressed with it that my prefered solution was accepted without any discussion. My solution, deemed impossible and inacceptable only days before, was implemented.

    So I can fully support the advice I read somewhere: A manager is someone who decides but doesn’t understand. A technician is someone who understands but can’t decide. When the technician succeeds to explain the situation to the manager, the manager can make an educated decision instead and both will be happy.

  12. I hope you don’t mind; I’m going to copy this and modify it, replacing “manager” with “selectman” (a local town official), and then give it to them, on the sly.