Management Amorphous moments of clarity

The Twinge

You know this meeting. It’s the meeting where, when anyone hears the attendee list, they instantly know, “Oh, it’s that meeting.” Something is up: a product is at risk, a strategy is being redefined, or a decision of magnitude is being considered.

Slide reviews are conducted via email, rehearsals are performed, and demos are fine-tuned. When the day arrives, the room fills, nervous glances are exchanged, and it begins. Your practice pays off. Expected questions appear and are quickly answered. The project is solid; perhaps there is no need for that massive decision. We’re in good shape, except Allison, the SVP, has a question. Allison?

“Has anyone talked to Roger’s group about this? Can they support this load?”


The Screw-Me Scenario describes the fantastic silence in the room when everyone understands the colossal gap that Allison’s questions unexpectedly illuminate. That’s an excellent article to read if you want to figure out how to react. The question I want to answer here is how in the hell does an SVP who isn’t even a part of this project, who was invited as a courtesy, and who has never even seen the project proposal find the biggest strategic gap in our thinking after staring at our slides for 13 minutes?

She had a Twinge.

Twinge Acquisition

As a manager, you manage both yourself and your team, and the simple fact is there will always be more of them than of you. Unless you’re the guy managing a single person (weird), you’ve got multiple folks with all their varied work and quirky personalities to manage.

Rookie managers approach this situation with enviable gusto. They believe their job is to be aware of and responsible for their team’s every thought and action. I like to watch these freshman managers sweat and scurry about the building as they attempt to complete this impossible task.

It’s not that I enjoy watching them prepare to fail. In fact, as they zip by, I explicitly warn them: “There is no way you’re doing it all. You need to trust, and you need to delegate.” But even with this explanation, most of these managers are back in my office in three weeks saying the same thing: “I have no idea how you keep track of it all”.

I don’t.

In addition to trusting those who work for you by delegating work that you may genuinely believe only you can do, management is also the art of listening to a spartan data set, extracting the truth, and trusting your Twinges. When you do this well, you look like a magician, but when you screw up, the consequences can be far ranging and damage the project as well as your reputation with those involved.

How to Build a Twinge

Before I explain how this truth extraction and Twinge construction can screw things up, let’s first understand why these managers aren’t listening to me and why I’m ok with that. Remember, I’m talking about engineers here. A class of human beings that derives professional joy from the building of things — specific things. Things they can sit back and stare at — look there! — I built that thing.

The building of things scratches an essential itch for engineers. It’s why they became engineers in the first place. When they were six, their Dad handed them two boards, a nail, and a hammer, and they started whacking. BLAM, BLAM, BLAM. Even with the nail awkwardly bent in half, the wood was suddenly and magically bound together: a thing was built. At that moment, this junior engineer’s brain excreted a chemical that instantly convinced them of the disproportionate value of this construction. This is the best wood thing in the world because I built it. And then they looked up from their creation and pleaded, “Dad, I need more nails.”

Dad handed them three more nails, showed them where to hold the hammer, and demonstrated how to hit the nail. More whacking. BLAM, BLAM, BIFF. This time, the nail wasn’t bent; this time, on the last hit, the nail slid effortlessly into the wood. This engineer in training had now experienced two essential emotions: the joy of creation and the satisfaction of learning while gaining experience and perfecting the craft.

Engineers are wired to learn how to build stuff well, and as they continue to do that, someone eventually thinks it’s a good idea to promote them to become managers. These new managers initially believe the essential skills of building that made them successful as engineers will apply to the building of people, and they don’t. It’s their experience that matters.

Management is a total career restart. One of the first lessons a new manager discovers, either through trial and error or instruction, is that the approaches they used for building the product aren’t going to work when it comes to people. However, this doesn’t mean all of the experience is suddenly irrelevant. In fact, it’s that experience that creates the Twinge.

A Day of Stories

As a manager, think of your day as one full of stories. All day, you’re hearing stories from different people about the different arcs being played out in the hallwaysrooms. As these stories arrive, there is one question you need to always ask: Do you believe this story? Before you make that call, there are a couple of and conference things you need to know.

First, this story is incomplete, and you’re ok with that. Here’s why: for now, you need to trust that those who work with you can synthesize a story. Part of their value is their judgment in presenting you with the essential facts, and until they prove they can’t synthesize sufficiently, you assume they can.

Second, and contradictorily, while I believe that folks don’t wake up intending to construct lies, I also know that for any story you’re hearing, you’re getting the version that supports their chosen version of reality. As a story is being told to you, the storyteller’s opinion is affecting both the content and the tone. Their agenda dictates what they are choosing to tell you. Again, malevolent forces are not necessarily driving the storyteller. They are hopeful; they want to succeed, but this story needs judgment, and that’s where you come in as a manager. I’ll explain by example.

A Familiar Nail

“Ok, Project Frodo — we’re two weeks from feature complete. Our task list is down to seven items, but as you can see from this chart, the work is spread out among the teams. I’m confident we’ll hit the date.”

This sounds like good news. This sounds like the truth. Nothing in those three sentences sets off any alarms in my head, but I’m a manager, and it’s my job to sniff around.

“Is the design done?”

“Yes, except for items six and seven.”

Ok, so it’s not done. “When will they be done with design?”

“In a week and a half.”

“And you can finish the tasks in two days after we receive the designs?”

“I, uh…”

Sniffing around pisses people off. Sniffing around is often interpreted as micromanagement, a passive-aggressive way of stating, “I don’t believe you can do your job.” While there are many managers out there who pull this move to pump up their perceived fading value, this is not what I’m doing — I’m trying to figure out if this story is familiar.

I’ve built a lot of teams that have built a lot of software. I know that what we receive as complete designs is usually 80% of what we actually need. Because I was the engineer sitting there staring at the Photoshops in the middle of the night with two days to feature complete, thinking, “It’s sure pretty, but what about internationalization? And error cases? You know that’s work, right?”

It’s not that I know all the intricacies of Project Frodo and I don’t want to know them all. It’s a team full of personalities, tasks, and dependencies that I could spend my entire day trying to understand, and I’ve got two other projects of equal size running hot. As I’m listening to this story, I’m listening hard and trying to figure out… have I seen this nail before? I have, haven’t I? I don’t remember when, but I do remember the Twinge…

Do you remember every success and failure? No. You can recite your greatest hits over a Mai Tai, but you can’t recollect them all. However, you can still remember the experience. I’ve long since given up trying to understand why one story rings true to me while another triggers the Twinge. I believe that my brain is far better at subconscious analysis, pattern matching, and teasing out essential details from the noise than I’ll consciously ever be. I believe that my experiences drive my sometimes subconscious instincts, which is why I’ve come to trust the Twinge.

A Twinge Catastrophe

A Twinge is your experience speaking to you in an unexpected and possibly unstructured way. While you don’t want to base your management strategy on these amorphous moments of clarity, I want to explain their importance in the organization.

This storytelling, the careful selection of facts, ideas, and data, is happening everywhere in the company. Everyone is building a story about what and how they’re doing, and they’re often optimizing in their favor.

While many of these stories involve the mundane day-to-day operations of the company, some of these stories are terribly important. While it might not sound like it right now, that story Bob just explained about a minor performance issue on one server is a massive performance debacle in the making. Joe’s story about that annoying interaction design problem is the description of the absence of a feature you don’t even know you’re missing.

When these seemingly benign stories are not judged or questioned, the story is over. Bob’s conscience is clear because he gave you a heads-up. Your conscience is clear because you listened to Bob’s concern, and, yeah, you had a Twinge, but Bob’s delivery record is impeccable, so Twinge be damned, it’ll sort itself out in the end.

Your failure to heed your Twinge is a management failure.

It gets worse. This story optimization happens at every layer of management and in every group of people. Each time an unheeded Twinge story jumps from one person to the next, a lie propagates throughout the organization. And if the story started in your group, it’s your fault this misinformation is running amok. Now, other people in the building might get a Twinge and save your team’s collective professional ass. Still, again, if it’s a story that originated in your group, the responsibility was yours.

Just Another Nail

New engineering managers wrestle with the gig because they miss building stuff. The powerfully addictive act of building is no longer part of their day, and they bitch: “You know, I don’t know what I do all day.” Finding other ways to scratch this itch is a topic for another article, but for now, one of your jobs is to listen to the stories, map them against your experience. When there’s a Twinge, you ask questions, and you need to believe the asking of these questions is a form of building.

As a manager, when the story doesn’t quite feel right, you demand specifics. You ask for the story’s details to prove it is true. If the story can’t stand up to the first three questions that pop your mind, there’s an issue.

You don’t run a team or a company on a Twinge. The ability to listen to random stories and quickly tease out a flaw in the logic or the absence of a critical dependency is just one of the skills you need to develop as a manager. Like building, the discovery and the asking of these questions is an art; it’s just another nail you need to figure out how to hammer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

16 Responses

  1. A nice turn of phrase from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash comes to mind:

    “To condense fact from the vapor of nuance.”

  2. Monkeypizza 14 years ago

    “Finding other ways to scratch this itch is a topic for another article…”

    Looking forward to it!

  3. This is a neat representation of what a manager should (be able to) do. I’m glad I’m more into the nail-hammering game.

  4. The Twinge is a great way to capture that skill set attribute that every IT engineering manager needs to be strong. It is indeed an art in the way one can ask questions that get the engineer to share what they have accidentally glossed over in their status explanation/story. Another take on the use of the Twinge when one is under pressure is captured in an article series I wrote recently:

    Looking forward to more.

  5. Ronny 14 years ago

    “My belief is that my brain is far better at subconscious analysis, pattern matching, and teasing out apparently essential details from the noise than I’ll consciously ever be”

    So true

  6. tmacc 14 years ago

    Taking a page from your book of tweets: When you say “of magnitude”, I just hear “big.”

  7. I was just talking with our procurement manager about how we don’t always take the lowest bid. I ended up resorting to examples, because I couldn’t come up with the right word to explain the logic. Twinge, is exactly right.

  8. Chris Ainslie 14 years ago

    “Finding other ways to scratch this itch is a topic for another article…”

    As a developer turned manager I would truly love to read this one when it’s done.

  9. In his book ‘Blink’ Malcolm Gladwell deconstructs this process (blinks, twinges, gut feelings). Reading the book is a really good way of understanding how gut feelings or twinges occur, why you should trust it, thus how to put forward a rational argument for trusting it!

    And yeah, I was given the wood and the nails. I was 3, and from that day on til the day he died, my Dad always complained that I was forever nicking his nails! It explains a lot about why I turned into a programmer. Still have that first hammer too.

  10. Josh Miller 14 years ago

    I say a t-shirt “Trust The Twinge” is needed or a double side that says, “You don’t run a team on a Twinge”, “..but trust the Twinge”

  11. The rest of us call it “Intuition.”

  12. After my above pithy statement I started wondering if all managers have such a developed “Twinge” as you call it or whether you’re just a strong N type personality and that’s something you innately rely on (If you buy into myers briggs typology analysis at all). Obviously experience precludes intuition, but your brain can make all sorts of associations you wouldn’t necessarily think of as direct experience in any given situation.

    I’m guessing you’re at least an ‘NT’ personality. I find myself curious as to what an ‘SF’ would have to say about managing nerds. They of course also _have_ intuition, but would they depend more on determining the emotional nuances of their team and focus more on tangible problems?

    I’m pretty sure my boss is an ‘ST’ I’ve noticed that she doesn’t always trust in my intuition to put things together unless specifically state what I know and how I know it. She came from a business background, rather than the engineering one. I’m sure that’s not uncommon. I wonder if they use the ‘Twinge’ as much as we do.

  13. Reactions to my “twinge questions” are met with either thanks or annoyance. That’s OK, because I know the value of my own twinge meter.

    On the other hand, when someone else is asking questions, I can usually tell the difference between micromanagement, ignorance, and true twinge. I try to listen and think before reacting, because anyone can have a twinge.

    Experience isn’t everything, but it sure can save a project.

  14. Damn, you nailed me on the “Engineers like to build” insight. No pun intended, of course.

  15. Ruthe Kaplin 13 years ago

    That’s an interesting point of view, though I am not sure if I agree.

  16. No doubt the “Twinge” is a good thing per se. The degree of helpfulness of a “twinge” however, actually depends on how effectively it was heeded to (if at all) – how it is understood, and how it is to be communicated to or verified through others. A thorough filtering system behind good intention is needed to heighten the effectiveness of the “twinge factor” I suppose…