Decisions: Striving for average

When I wrote about how moving from a technical role to a management one is going to suck, I highlighted what I believe is the key reason: it involves a fundamental, religious shift in your personal values and motivation. One example of this is that as software developers, we strive constantly towards a commonly defined and accepted ‘best’ possible solution. In management, there is no such thing.

When I was new into management, I invested a lot of time trying to ensure I was doing the best I could by every single one of my employees because I believed that was my new objective measure of success. At the time, someone passed on the sage piece of wisdom that “if everyone loves a decision you’ve made, you’ve made a mistake”.

During those early years, one of the things I implemented was an employee awards program. I’d read some of the literature around the hazards of replacing intrinsic rewards with extrinsic ones, so my system required that people were nominated only by their peers (rather than management) and there was no monetary prize, just kind words read out at the monthly town hall meeting in recognition of good work.

I remember very clearly my horror when, shortly after the first of these awards, an employee (we’ll call him Jim) requested to speak to me, so he could complain about this new recognition system. In my mind, this was a wholesome, uncontroversial way to give team members a pat on the back. What on earth could Jim be upset about?

In the meeting, Jim pointed out that he had worked alongside one of the people who had been recognised under the new program. The recognition had been for hard work and commitment to reach a critical project milestone. Jim made the point that he had done the same sort of work, on the same project, under the same conditions, but that he had worked an extra few hours in the final week, because his area was one of the last to go through testing and bugfixing. Jim was upset that someone else had been recognised and by implication, he had been excluded.

The bad news: No matter how universally loved you imagine your decision will be, there will always be someone who hates it and thinks you are an idiot for even entertaining it for a moment. Lavish your team with new aeron chairs, free drinks and massages? Well, unless you’re Google, your financial controller is going to come asking questions in very short order.

Flexible work hours for night-owl developers? Project managers will arrive with their new project plans indicating that the impact on the analysts, customer reps and the test team means a revised delivery date of shortly after man has walked on Mars.

The fix: Strive for average. Seriously. You are there to make decisions between competing interests – that’s your job! – and it will almost never be the best option to take one extreme or the other.

You need to be able to weigh the information you have to hand objectively and look for the decision which delivers the best balance of outcomes. In my experience, good decisions are greeted with a shrug of acknowledgement and never spoken of again. If you are cheered and carried off on the shoulders of your audience, the question should arise in your head – what price has to be paid for today’s inebriating adulation?

Sober questions about risk analysis, commercial exposure and fiscal responsibility may face you tomorrow.

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