Saturday, March 31, 2007

Knowing When to Engage

A major question for any manager is, "How much?"

How much detail is needed from an associate?

How much time should be spent on a project?

How much money should be allocated?

The question is important because managers - in contrast to specialists - have to know enough of a wide range of subjects in order to facilitate the operation of the work unit. Former specialists who become managers often make the mistake of devoting so much time to a favorite subject that their work is imbalanced and other topics are neglected.

I don't mean to criticize "neglect." That word has a negative connotation but, when applied to management, it also has a positive side. Some tasks have to be neglected at certain times. The manager who tries to do everything well at all moments will soon resemble the person who jumped on a horse and rode off in all directions.

Experienced managers develop a talent for sensing when something requires additional attention. They hear some hesitation in a subordinate's voice when the person describes the progress on a project. They notice a silence when a worker's name is mentioned. They can walk through a factory and, by observing body language, quickly deduce the morale. And then they engage.

This balancing between engagement and - to steal Daniel Moynihan's term - benign neglect is why management is more art than science. Sure, we can put together dashboard reports in which key determinants of progress are routinely shown. Those are certainly helpful. But I've never seen a report that didn't have some gaps and within those gaps, disaster can fester. That's why the manager is daily wondering, "How much is too much and how much is too little?"

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