Management and Situational Awareness

I really enjoyed When G.M. Was Google, a New Yorker article about Google, GM, and management books by Nicholas Lemann. It is worth reading for the survey of management books alone, but more importantly, it tears down the idea that we can determine the One True Way to manage a company by looking at the most successful company of the day. In fact, it questions the idea that there is One True Way, arguing “there isn’t one fix to the problem of human organization that functions in all situations at all times.”

Lemann notes that “what managers consider a problem is typically what their predecessor considered a solution.” If only this meant that we were always improving our management methods, each generation of managers building on the insights and solutions of the previous one. Sadly, it seems that instead we often throw out the old methods entirely, and revert back to the earlier problems.

Consider, for instance, the role of processes and rules. At the time in which Alfred P. Sloan was leading General Motors to greatness, the problem was charismatic company leaders who emphasized personality over process. Sloan pushed back on this, and as Lemann writes, determined that “having rules was better than having a ruler”

Eventually, of course, rules and processes turned into bureaucracy and that became the problem, and now we’re back to start ups with charismatic leaders, arguing that rules and processes impede progress.

The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

Or perhaps, more accurately, the truth, a.k.a. the best balance between process and freedom, is different in different situations.

This is why I cannot easily respond when someone asks me “how can I be a better manager?” The answer depends on the circumstances in which that person is managing.

Similarly, I dislike rigorous adherence to specific project management methodologies. As much as I love Kanban, I doubt it is the right approach in every situation. It is not fashionable to admit it now, but there are aspects of the traditional “waterfall” project management techniques that work really, really well in some situations.

To me, the key to good management, whether it is of people or projects, or even, I suspect, companies is situational awareness. This is one of the military terms I picked up during my years at a company that had a lot of former military officers, but it is useful so it has stayed with me. It is generally used to describe an awareness of the full environment surrounding events. When thinking about management, I think of situational awareness as being aware of the environment in which your actions are embedded. It encompasses company and industry culture, the personalities and pain points of the people on your team, the other projects and business goals competing for attention, and more.

Management methods that shine in one situation may produce terrible results in another. So while I enjoy reading about Google’s success and think there are important lessons we can learn from it, I do not think the team at Google has come up with the “right” way to run a company, any more than the team at GM had.

Treat with suspicion anyone who says they know how to solve your management problems without first gaining a solid understanding not just of those problems, but of the environment in which you work. There are no shortcuts to good management. The best you can hope for is instructive lessons that help you analyze your issues and come up with the best methods to use in your particular situation.




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  3. […] There are two things you should remember while you’re reading these things. (1) Yes, you can learn from managers working in a completely different field than yours. Management is about people and how they respond to things, and although there are differences based on organizational culture and individual background, a lot of insights transfer across fields quite well. (2) However, you should always evaluate anything you read against the “ground truth” of your specific situation. There is no one true way to manage that will work across all situations. […]

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