On creating vs managing permalink

At a high level, every organization has two types of roles: managers and individual contributors. It is easy to draw parallels between these roles and the two most common organizational acts: managing and creating. Managers manage and individual contributors create, right? Let’s look at why this is a bad mentality, and how we can shift the company’s mentality to make it bigger, faster, stronger by getting everyone in the act of creating.

Creating is the act of producing new value. At most companies, this comes in the form of new features or products or improving existing capabilities to be better or more efficient. Creating directly results in some type of artifact or changes to an artifact.

Managing is the act of organizing so that creation can happen. Managing has no direct artifact, but can multiply the effects of creating - when managing has been done well - or a tax on the company - when managing has been done poorly.

Let’s agree that, in general, companies should strive to have as many people creating and as few people managing, as possible.

But what’s often overlooked is that having your managers manage more isn’t the right solution. This is a typical response when people see their individual contributors become more and more involved in acts of managing. How often has your manager said, “I’m going to those meetings so you don’t have to.”1 The information covered in that meeting still needs to be conveyed to the team. In addition, the team has information that needs to be conveyed back to the other teams (potentially proxied by their manager). So all this does is add an extra managing step and a non-zero delay to getting all parties fully organized - in the best case. Or even worse, your manager chats you multiple times through the day to get an “up-to-date” status on your progress.2

So, what’s the alternative?

The trick is to get your managers creating their own artifacts. At some companies, there are working managers who produce code artifacts - and that’s cool that they get to keep the edge. But at other companies, managers are “just” people managers - and people managers are the ones most likely to fall back to managing more and managing harder. The most common artifacts that people managers create typically get “released” as documentation. So a good first artifact is to create a central place for documentation, followed by a plan for organizing that documentation.

After that, here’s some artifacts that I’ve created as a manager:

  1. List of current team members skills and experience levels
  2. List of the team’s needed skills
  3. Company policy documents on (in no particular order):
    1. Performance reviews
    2. 1-on-1s
    3. Meetings
    4. Team building events
    5. Training and conferences
    6. Issue tracking
    7. Open source contributions
    8. PTO/Remote work
    9. Production support

Another artifact that I’m looking forward to sharing with you all soon is a manager README.

This practice isn’t limited to engineering managers, either! Your product manager could/should try to stay in the act of creating roadmaps, market demographic reports, competitor feature gap analysis documents, and others. The more people your company has in the mindset of producing artifacts, the better!

I’d love to hear what artifacts your managers produce for the next time I’m in a creating mindset.

1 Disclaimer: I know I’ve been guilty of it at times. I’m not perfect and that’s what makes me beautiful.

2 See 1

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