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Good management is (still) a thing

As a manager, this is what I’ve learned so far

I aspire to be a better leader, but I spend much of my time these days ‘managing’. It’s probably the most important part of my job right now.

It feels like we hear a lot about the importance of leadership, but not so much about what good management looks like.

If you have any level of responsibility for other people’s experience at work, then ‘managing’ needs to be something you think about and plan for.

I’m very much still learning on the job, but here are some thoughts on what managers should be doing in order for teams to deliver the best work possible.

Just to be clear, ‘managing’ isn’t always the same ‘line managing’. In my experience, if you hire good people who care then give them permission to work in the open, more formal line management shouldn’t always be needed.

As I see it, a manager’s job is to firstly make sure that people are okay, and then to give them the support they need to do their job.

Making space for other people

As a manager my job is to make space for people do their best work.

The best way to do this is to manage the things around them so they can be good at their job.

This means keeping things out of the way that will be a distraction. Think about unnecessary admin, IT systems, business processes, and anything else that’s not directly related to why you hired them.

I think of this as designing the experience of work – we shouldn’t just be designing great experiences for end-users of our products and services.

Managing conversations

As a manager my job is to manage conversations.

Starting a conversation is one of the most disruptive things you can do at work. Organisations need leaders who are willing to be the first voice in a conversation, but these conversations also need ‘managing’. They need to involve the right people in the right places.

I’ve found that much of my role leading a design team is just getting people to talk to each other – for example, “have you spoken to that person yet” or “did you know that there’s a team working on a similar problem?”.

The important part is the willingness to manage conversations and to make sure that the right people are involved.

One of my goals for ‘managing’ design in a large organisation is simply to try and make sure we only ever work on design problems once, or in one place at a time. We need to make sure that everyone talks to each other at the right times and in the right places.

Keeping everyone focused on solving the problem

As a manager my job is to keep everyone focused on solving the problem.

This is about keeping everyone’s attention on the real problem we’re trying to solve together.

The biggest challenge for teams working on a problem can be lack of focus. The complexity and size of the things we’re working on can make it easy to lose sight of why we’re doing the work.

I’ve found that part of this is ‘managing’ how people react to problems, set backs, or sticky challenges. Every organisation has these, but how we choose to react is usually a measure of eventual success.

This means helping teams to communicate and deal with frustrations using retrospectives. It’s also about how you manage objectives in a corporate culture where you’re encouraging people to push on and solve bigger organisational problems.

I think this particular point is about both leadership and management in teams – however you get there, it’s about creating the optimism needed for solving any problem.

Making difficult decisions

As a manager my job is about getting the right mix of people working together.

This is about ‘managing’ team relationships.

Team fit, and individual personalities all need to be considered for a team to function well together. The hard part is always finding the right mix of people and experience in different roles like design and user research.

This means making hard calls to move people away from teams they enjoy working with, or having to be honest with people when things just aren’t working – it might not be their fault, and again, ‘managing’ the things happening around them might be the first step you need to take.

I’ve had to learn that tough decisions about people priorities never go away. Sometimes things don’t work out and there’s a hard call to make.

Leading and managing?

So, just a few examples. Like I said, I’m still learning and will probably revisit this in the future.

We need great leaders. But we also need great managers. I hope there’s space for some people to be both.

Ben Holliday is an experienced design leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.