Sep. 1st, 2015

Occasionally I moonlight as a python tutor for someone. Sometimes I show them the ins and outs of the language, and sometimes I talk to them about their current challenges in the workplace.

That's when I was reminded of a management phrase I absolutely loathe, "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions".

If that saying was a person, I would encase their limbs in concrete1, and smash it open again with a lump hammer. Then I'd do other unspeakable things to the rest of it.

I hate that phrase.

To me, it's a management smell. When I hear that from a manager, I wonder if I'm in the right job.

I had a manager who said that. I was talking about problems I was having working with another member of the team, and lots of other people had them as well.

My manager told me he didn't care, and to sort it out. He then followed it up with the grand proclamation of "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions".

To me, that's entirely the wrong approach to management; at least, it's the wrong approach to managing me.

When I got my first Forever Job2, I used to have a one-to-one with my manager every 2 weeks. That meeting was basically an opportunity for him to tell me what he needed from me, but at the end of it, he'd ask, "Is there anything I can do for you?". It was a ritual for him, he'd always end the meeting with that. Mostly, I'd just say, "No", and totter back to work, but it was a useful hook for when I did need something.

Once or twice, I did need a path cleared for me, in order to do my work, or to ask a favour, and that was the perfect opportunity to raise non-urgent issues.

And, with this manager, they got looked at.

When I was an intern, I had another good manager. If I had a problem, especially technical, he frequently restated, reframed, and decomposed my problem into chunks manageable enough for me to be getting on with. In other words, I went in with problems, and I came out with things to be getting on with. Now, in fairness, I was an intern, and I'm pretty sure that manager saw his role as being a mentor in that situation3.

These days, I work in an "agile" environment, and a Scrum Master is meant to be the person that clears the shit from a developer's way, and lets them get on with their work. That's pretty much what I think a line manager should be to their front-line staff. This is why I don't trust someone that will say, "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions".

Maybe the phrase is meant to mean something else, but I take it to mean, "I don't give a shit about your problems, get me results".

That phrase betrays an attitude that the manager has no hand in the results. They're given a requirement that they relay to the team, and they expect results. They may have a hand in planning, or anything else, but that's as much as they're willing to enable their workers to get on with it.

Sometimes a problem is beyond the control of the developer.

Sometimes a problem is about resources, or politics, or a lack of information.

Personally, when I hear that phrase, all I think is, "Well, if I had a solution, I wouldn't have needed come to you".

In most industries, the rank-and-file workers are not unintelligent. Frequently, they know what's going on, and they know what is and isn't within their control.

Sure, it would be good for any employee to know what the ideal solution would look like. Actually, no. It would be good to know what the end-state would look like. Sometimes the end-state will be as simple as, "the impediment is not there any more", but they shouldn't have the solution immediately to hand. It's great if they do have the solution to hand and say, "I need access to this device, but I need written approval from you first", but they shouldn't have to have the solution if it's not readily available to them.

The manager may be able to instantly point to a known solution. But in most cases I expect there to be negotiation. I expect a conversation as we work out what needs to be done to remove my impediment. Sometimes the meeting itself is enough. That meeting will be curtailed if the initial response is, "Bring me solutions".

Sometimes that meeting involves figuring out what end-states are most achievable. "Will it work if we just can get this to happen?". Again, if The Phrase comes up, it just suggests a fundamental apathy, a complete and total lack of engagement.

Personally, when I heard my boss say that phrase, that's when I started looking for a new job.

Management is a tricky job, and I don't want to do it yet. But it involves making sure your team works smoothly. As a manager, you aren't directly delivering results, but you make sure your team has the best shot of doing so. That means doing the hard sums of figuring out what colleagues don't play well with others and giving individual work to them. It means making sure that you don't have a single point of failure in your team (aka increasing your bus factor). It means keeping morale to a level where all your employees don't want to quit all at the same time, which itself means resolving interpersonal conflicts, or at the very least keeping conflicting employees in opposite corners. It means sheltering your team from the shit flung from further up the ladder, and from people on the same rung of other ladders.

But, overall, it means keeping your team impediment-free, so they can do their fucking jobs.

Saying, "Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions" means you do not want to be part of that process.

If every employee gave you a solved problem, there'd be no justification for your job.

Obligatory footnotes )



September 2015


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