The Real Job of a Manager: Part Two – Managing the Work with Focus

This is part two of a three-part series entitled “The Real Job of a Manager and Why it’s Easy to be Bad at It”. Part 1 focuses on The Fundamentals of Management, part 2 focuses on Managing the Work and part 3 will focus on Managing the People.

In the first part of this series I covered the essential division of responsibility for managers. We broke that down into two areas: managing the work and managing the people. An important takeaway from that was a reminder of the real goal of every manager, which is to bring real value to the companies we work for.

For part two, I want to jump right into the juicy details of how to properly manage for the work. Although this is starkly different from being a dedicated project manager, you’ll find that many of the functions are similar. I’ve seen my fair share of engineering managers that think they aren’t responsible for this portion. That’s a big mistake.

What’s My Focus as a Manager of Work

A huge risk for us managers nowadays is the increasing focus on people management over managing our projects and work. Our job is to do an equally good job at both. The secret is, being good at one will automatically help the other, but we still have to really know what we’re doing.

I’ve spent quite some time reading up on what people have been saying recently on this topic, and unfortunately it isn’t too much. Most articles are focused on actual project managers, but if you’re an engineering manager, you know the role is different. The bottom line is, if you’re bad at managing the work, your team will suffer. The engineers under you will start to notice and their confidence in you will drop. That’s why this is so important, and why you need to be focusing on it right now.

Speaking of focus, I’ve boiled this section down to three main areas: Planning, Executing, and Finishing. These are essentially the steps I believe you need to master to be effective at managing the work for your team. If you’re not successful with all three of these areas, then you’ll really struggle to excel as a manager. So, let’s get started!

Focus #1: Planning – How to Effectively Prioritize & Organize

I want to start this section with a warning. Over-planning is a terrible habit and can cause you to be an ineffective manager. It’ll lead to your projects becoming more complicated than they should be. You’ll look like an indecisive person, and that’ll hurt your career growth. Rarely will you have the perfect plan from the start, so don’t try for perfection—it’s impossible!

With that said, effectively planning is the essential first step that a manager has to get right. If you’ve ever worked for a manager that didn’t know how to properly plan, you’ll probably also have memories of a poor launch and a lot of stress during the development process.

Validating The Project: Four Fundamentals

As mentioned in part one, the four fundamentals should always be used [1] when in the planning phase. The questions you’ll want to ask yourself are:

  1. How does this project grow revenue?
  2. Does this project get new customers?
  3. Can this project keep the customers we have happy?
  4. How can we eliminate costs with this project?

Here’s the hard part, not every project you plan for will have an easy answer to these questions. I’ve managed a number of projects that weren’t directly related to the company’s bottom line. In those situations, what are we supposed to do?

I’ll take a quote from Denny Strigl, former Verizon Wireless CEO, where he address this, talking about his most effective managers:

If a manager is doing something that does not relate to one or more of these fundamentals, he or she should stop doing it and start doing something that does.

If you really let that sink in and you hone in on the word “relate”, then, like me, you might realize that he’s right. Everything we do as managers must relate to at least one of the fundamentals. If you can’t figure it out alone, pull in your boss, your product manager, or anyone else who might give you insight.

The end goal of any work that we prioritize has to be adding some type of measurable value to the companies we work for. If your team isn’t doing that, when budget cuts come, you’ll be the most vulnerable. You also owe it to the people who report to you to make sure they understand the value they bring to the organization. One important component of employee morale is the feeling that they’re contributing to something important. [2]

The Essence of Planning: What Do I Do?

Once you’ve properly justified and prioritized the projects you’re working on, you’ll need to finalize the planning by checking off another set of important questions.

  1. Are the objectives of the project clear to everyone?
  2. Is the definition of the problem correct and understood?
  3. Have I broken down the tasks properly?
  4. Is there a defined and realistic timeline?

Be careful not to fall into one of the two extremes here. The first is planning too little and the second is planning too much. Answering these four questions should be enough to move forward to the next phase. Just remember, projects evolve as they’re implemented. Meaning, always leave room for change, while still sticking to solving the fundamental problem you’re tasked with.

Focus #2: Executing – Keeping Your Project Healthy

Have you ever had a manager who stepped away when it came time to execute? Of course, there comes times to let the engineers do their job, but if you’re disconnected from this part, chance are the project will take a turn for the worse.

I’ll give you my own real life example that I dealt with and learned a lot from. While juggling a few different projects, I decided to step away from one during the execution phase. I thought, wrongly, that since we planned it so well, it would be fine. Over the next few sprint cycles the engineers began to get confused. Blockers weren’t being cleared fast enough, and the project scope started to get increasingly convoluted. It took me re-engaging to realize that I had an important role to play even if I thought I had the perfect plan at the start.

The extremes we as managers face here are between micromanagement and being disconnected. Sure, you need to be able to trust the people working under you to get the job done, but you also need to keep an eye on the project and the overarching decisions being made. If you’re juggling a lot of projects,  it’s going to be difficult. The good news is, I’ve put together some priorities that have worked for me and that I’ll recommend you consider.

Priority #1: Discussing New Decisions

If there are new decisions that impact the project, it’s important to loop the team in as soon as possible. These decisions may come from stakeholders, product managers, or another engineer. Regardless of where they come from, my experience is that the sooner you communicate this to the team, the better. In an ideal world, you’d even include the engineers in the discussion to give their input, but that may not always be an option or appropriate.

Priority #2: Communicating Potential Delays

I’m sure you’ve noticed that it’s rare that a project hits every milestone target. That’s why it’s important to communicate as early as possible when anything is delayed. It’s always better to give a heads up rather than waiting until the deadline and quietly letting it pass. Don’t let this be an excuse for a constantly moving goal post, though. It’s important to get good at estimating and being able to stick with your commitments. Being closely connected to the engineers should allow you to see when look like they might slip.

(A common theme with the two above points is being a good communicator during the execution phase.)

Priority #3: Removing Blockers

Things get in the way of progress. One of your primary jobs is to remove these hurdles so that the engineers can continue doing their job. This needs to be done promptly too. Lingering blockers will have a domino effect on progress. Blockers might be due to other teams, engineers, or even your own decision-making. I know from experience that this can be a challenge sometimes, but it’s your job to figure it out as an effective manager.

Priority #4: Simplified, Holistic, Reliable Solutions

Sometimes engineers, in hopes of creating the perfect solution, over-engineer their work. As a manager, you need to keep an eye on this and help everyone determine when it really is good enough.

On the other hand, the bane of any project launch is a backlog of technical debt. Finding ways to eliminate potential for technical debt is critical throughout execution. I know it’s challenging when you want simplified solutions. A good manager finds a way to balance this, and help the engineers learn to do it themselves.

As for reliability, it’s easy to cut corners in order to meet a deadline. What we have to avoid, however, is shipping unreliable products that don’t perform properly. Your job is to make sure the engineers, even under pressure, don’t end up producing something they know won’t perform solidly. You’re their advocate when the pressure is on, so make sure you stand firm for their needs.

The overall message here is that you’re in charge of the solution that’s being architected and built. While you shouldn’t be micromanaging your engineers, you need to be involved with what they’re producing. As the manager, you should have the technical experience to guide them. Even with a team of senior engineers, make sure you’re not taking their competency for granted.

Priority #5: Clear Objectives

Especially for large projects, during execution the team can sometimes lose sight of the real purpose. In order to have simplified, holistic, and reliable solutions, engineers need to be constantly aligned with the objectives. Regrouping throughout the project is a good way to make sure everyone stays on track. Don’t assume that just because everyone understood the plan at the beginning, that they continue to have clarity on it throughout execution.

Focus #3: Finishing – Getting Your Project Launched

If you have a hard time launching the projects that you’re managing, don’t get too down on yourself. It’s easy for the last 10% to get messy and require a lot of attention. What’s important is sticking to your commitment to stakeholders and finding ways to get to your goal line without compromising your product.

Managers that can’t finish, even if they’re great planners and executors, have a real problem. There are two extremes that can contribute to this: trying to make things perfect and being too rigid with deadlines. Perfection risks delaying launches past agreed upon timelines, and can easily turn a project into a failure. Rigidity revolves around being inflexible with the launch date, even in the case when the project isn’t ready. Both of these extremes will burn you as a manager and should be avoided.

Dealing with a Project in Danger of Finishing

If your project is in danger, the best exercise to do is determine what’s really essential. Of course, we all want the perfect delivery, but sometimes it’s worth figuring out what can be improved upon later. I’ve found that going back to the stakeholders and allowing them to determine what’s more important, the launch deadline or a specific feature, works well. Try giving them a more basic version of a feature, for example, and explaining how it can be improved later. This approach may get them to agree.

In the case when there’s no room for compromise on the features, it’s so critical to communicate delays as early as possible. Don’t just say you’re going to miss the deadline, though. I’ve found it effective to go back to my team and figure out a realistic date that they’ll stand behind. If you break the bad news, but have a concrete plan, it can potentially salvage your relationship with the stakeholder. Your reputation as a manager hinges on owning the missed deadline without excuses and working efficiently towards the finish line.

Making Finishing Rewarding

Part of motivating your team to finish their work on time is acknowledging their accomplishments. Many of us managers underestimate how important this part is, but it really means a lot to many engineers. Small gestures such as a launch email with people’s names in it, or a get together to congratulate everyone for their specific roles, will go a long way. You can even go the extra mile and take the team out—this works really well by the way.

Another important thing to keep in mind is leaving room for bug fixes and tweaks. We tend to pile our projects back to back, leaving engineers fatigued and projects left with loose ends. If you start a brand new initiative while there’s still cleanup on the last project, you risk derailing the new project. Dedicating some time to addressing issue that come up after launch is a good habit I recommend.

Bonus Focus: Leading the Way

We’ve covered what I view to be the essential focuses for managing the work. If you can successfully plan, build, and launch, you’ll find growth in your effectiveness as a manager. If you really want to get to the next level, however, you’ll want to think about three more focuses that’ll really show you can lead the way. These are: Visioning, Convincing, and Prioritizing.

The difference between someone who manages and someone who really leads revolves around these focuses. The goal here is to be able to craft the vision, get buy-in where necessary, and properly prioritize all of your initiatives. While I’d love to go into more detail on these, just keep this in mind for future growth. For now, focus on getting the basics of good management down. Denny Strigl says it best in his book, Managers, can you hear me now?:

Exceptional managers are able to consistently focus on getting basic, simple tasks done the right way, over and over again.

Onward to Better Management

We covered a lot in this second installment of our three-part series on The Real Job of a Manager. I hope you were able to take away a few key points that’ll be helpful as you manage the projects and work you’re responsible for.

Part three will be coming out in the next few weeks and will focus on the last portion, Managing the People. In there, I’ll focus on tips to better manage the people under you to have a more effective team. While I don’t promise to have all the right answers to being a great manager, I hope to inspire you to really think hard about your management style. Really ask yourself the important questions such as: Am I  properly balancing all my responsibilities? and What can I do to further improve as a manager?

Until next time, I wish you the best on your journey to better management…


[1] Strigl, Denny F., and Frank Swiatek. Managers, can you hear me now? : hard-hitting lessons on how to get real results. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.

Credit: Feature image by Freepik

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