Monday, January 28, 2013

Pattern: the Shit Umbrella

At Google, where I used to work, it was quite common to define effective management in terms of being a "shit umbrella". The idea is that you have a team of people trying to do their jobs, and there's all sorts of shit flying at them and getting in the way of that. As a manager, the shit reaches you first, and at that point a good manager will be a shit umbrella, shielding their team from the worst excesses of what's out there in the big bad world. A bad manager, conversely, will act as a "shit funnel" making sure that their team endures a perpetual and constant stream of crap.

Despite the unlovely and not fully-developed metaphor, the meaning here is clear: the good manager protects their people and does what they can to supply a working environment conducive to getting things done. They don't simply act as a routing node in a leadership hierarchy, but intelligently advocate for their team.

In a sense, the Shit Umbrella is more of a meta-pattern than a pattern. Effectively embodying the pattern actually requires a diversity of behaviours in a variety of contexts. Let's look at some examples of Shit Umbrella behaviour:

Pushing Back Against Stupid Directives

Let's not pretend that every decision made in the echelons of upper management is deeply infused with wisdom. Sometimes upper management is plain stupid, other times detached from reality, and very often simply doesn't have the level of nuanced understanding of your work to understand that what they want to doesn't make sense.

Imagine you're managing a lemonade stand, responsible for a team of people squeezing lemons from a tree in your frontyard and selling it to passers-by. Imagine as well that your lemonade stand is part of a suburb-wide conglomerate of beverage outlets. Now one day, management lets you know that they've made a strategic decision to make a volume play, dropping margins in order to increase sales. Now, that all sounded well and good in the boardroom, but what management doesn't know is that you're limited by the capacity of your tree to produce lemons. You're already squeezing every lemon on the tree to meet existing demand; dropping prices makes no sense and will simply reduce profits.

What do you do?

A bad manager will probably pass the directive on to employees, ignore the grumbling of dissent, and then find a way to blame somebody else when the inevitable bad numbers come in. Quite likely they expect to already be in a different role by then, so it won't matter anyway.

A good manager will use their position and their communication skills to explain to upper management why their directive is not a good one, and will do everything in their power to get it reversed. Importantly, that manager's team will be free to carry on with their work running the lemonade stand as profitably as possible, knowing that their manager the Shit Umbrella is shielding them from the suboptimal instruction.

Managing Change

Change happens all the time in the human experience, but in its pure unvarnished form it is certainly a type of Shit from which your people need to be protected. One week you're working at a lemonade stand, the next it's an orange/lemon mix, and the week after that you've moved to a new site. Without a manager to smooth the road, the employee will simply experience this as a series of shocks. With appropriate support, it can be an exciting opportunity.

As in the previous example, a manager who simply passes on instructions is not doing their job properly. Any change in a business triggers a variety of new tasks and uncertainties. A good manager will work with their team to figure out the consequences of the move to an orange/lemon mix and to help implement the necessary changes: where will the oranges come from? what percentage to blend? will the existing machines handle it? what should the new price be? how to message the change to customers? And so on. On an emotional level, change also needs to be managed. The chief juicer might be anxious that their well-honed lemon-squeezing expertise may not apply to oranges. It's the manager's job to provide support, whether that's simply emotional reassurance or access to training, whatever's appropriate.

The case of managing change is quite different from that of pushing back on the stupid directive. What they have in common is the sense that you are protecting your team from harm.

Caring About Your Team

They say that a mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child. In the same way, a manager should only be as satisfied as their least satisfied employee*. The key to being a Shit Umbrella is to care enough about your team that it pains you to see them bombarded with crap. If you genuinely feel that way, taking steps to protect them from that will be natural and reflexive. In later posts, I will talk about some more specific patterns that can help in protecting your team.

*I might write later about professional detachment; you don't want to be too glum the whole time. 


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