Action time

Part 3 of management for geeks.

When it comes to improving your management skills, I can’t think of many better recommendations than an action plan – sometimes called a personal development plan, or something equally cheesy.  It’s deceptively simple:

  • Analyse your current situation/skills
  • Work out where you want to get to
  • Find some concrete steps you can take to make progress
  • Write this down
  • Monitor your progress to check you’ve done what you planned

Don’t get put off by the bureacracy of it.  The point of all this is incredibly simple.  It’s just a way to get you to do stuff.  If you’re anything like me, you naturally soak up loads of theory, so your knowledge isn’t a problem.  You just need to get moving.  Time for action!

Action figure mugshot

Is it really necessary?

If you’ve moved from an engineering background, something might feel a bit unnecessary about all of this.  I mean, you almost certainly didn’t need a “personal development plan” to get good at programming: you just did it.  This plan idea smells like something a management consultant or school careers advisor would come up with (shudder!)

Despite this, I’ve found it to be incredibly valuable so far, which leaves me with a puzzle: why have I found this so helpful for management, and never needed it for programming?  Here’s what I have so far:

  • As a former programmer getting better at management, I need to do things out of my comfort zone, things I wouldn’t normally do, and would find reasons to put off if I could.  If you are your own worst enemy, then you need a way to check up on yourself.
  • It’s not like I set out specifically to become a good programmer: I did lots of subjects at school, and programming happened to be the one I naturally ended up being good at.  I’m now in a very different situation with management – I don’t have the luxury of trying multiple jobs and just seeing what I end up best at.  I want to get good at this, quickly.  It’s the difference between steering a precise course, and seeing where the winds take you.
  • If I’m being open-minded, there’s a further possibility, that this approach would actually have helped me at programming – perhaps I’d be a better programmer today if I’d followed it.  I’ll never know.

So yes, it pretty much is necessary.  Of course, if you can find another way to get yourself moving and motivated, go for it (and I’d love to hear from you!)

360-degree reviews

Last time round, I rather skimmed over the 360-degree review, other than saying it’s essential.  As the name suggests, you try to get information from as many sources as possible.

Panoramic photo of cylindrical painting

You need this information for your action plan.  More information can mean more ideas for goals, but more likely you’ll find different information sources corroborate one another and confirm what your goals should really be.  If you’re aiming to become a better people manager, getting feedback from your reports is one of the most important things you should do.  It’s also easy to organise yourself.  And it’s most likely something you haven’t done before; most organisations give you feedback from above, not below.

What do you ask them?  If you just ask “how well am I doing?” you’ll get the written equivalent of blank stares from many people.  You need to ask more specific questions!  Simply producing this list of questions is interesting in itself, because it forces you to think about what you should be doing well in your job.  You don’t need to cover absolutely everything here – your reports might not know much about your interactions up the management chain or across the business.  Instead, focus on your people management skills within the team.  This means things like:

  • Feedback – how good are you at setting clear expectations for people, recognising and valuing good work, giving timely, honest, constructive feedback on areas for improvement?  This doesn’t necessarily come naturally to ex-programmers 😉
  • Information-sharing – how well do you communicate your team’s strategy and vision, keep people informed on issues and changes affecting your team, give guidance on priorities and generally spread the right information around?  If you’re in different meetings and on different email lists from your reports, you have extra information, and it becomes easy to take it for granted: it can be genuinely hard to be aware of what your reports don’t know.  You have to make an explicit effort to share.
  • How well do you react when things go wrong?  Positively and constructively?  Or negatively blaming people?
  • How actively do you solicit people’s opinions, ideas and concerns?  How approachable are you?  Do you invite feedback on your own performance?  You do now, at least!
  • How much freedom and autonomy do you give people?  If you’ve recently moved out of programming, there’s a risk you can’t let go of the details. When people do have problems, can you help and support them without just telling them exactly what to do?
  • How well do you motivate people?  Motivation doesn’t have to be as cheesy as it sounds.  Most often, it’s as simple as solving the problems which are demotivating people 😉

Even done this way, you’re not going to get useful information from everyone, but the overall picture is invaluable.  This is one of the best ways to derive items for your action plan.

Be specific, and aim high

Your action plan won’t be much use if your goals aren’t specific.  Firstly, you have to know whether you’ve met them – yes or no, no grey area.  Secondly, you have to set timescales to measure your progress against.  Without these two things, you’re leaving yourself room to procrastinate, avoid taking action, convince yourself that you’re making progress when you’re not, and make excuses.  Remember, the whole point of the action plan is to help prod you into doing things that you’d normally avoid!

You also have to aim high, and while that’s self-explanatory, it does often go against being specific.  Don’t let that stop you having grander goals!  You’re simply going to have to break them down into smaller and smaller parts until you reach concrete things which can be achieved in the short term.

Try this exercise right now: think of something reasonably big you want to achieve, something that might take a fair bit of your life (it doesn’t have to be management, or even work related).  Now figure out what you’re going to do about it in the next year, the next three months, the next week, the next day.  What are you waiting for? 🙂

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