The Problem with Teaching Management

One of my favorite things to do is teach other people how to better manage their projects. It is also one of the hardest things I do. I’ve been thinking about why that is.

Layer cake

If I want to teach someone how to bake a cake, I can give them a recipe to follow, and point out some of the most common pitfalls to avoid, and then let them have a go, fairly confident that while they might not make the best cake first time out, they’ll probably make something edible. If I want to teach someone how to design a database, I again have something like a recipe to give them, and pitfalls to point out. The specific pitfalls are perhaps a little more complicated, or at least more complicated to recognize, but the basic teaching procedure is the same. Again, their first database will probably have some problems, but it will get the job done.

In both cases, once the problems are understood, we can iterate and fix the problems, holding pretty much everything else constant. After a few tries, my student will probably make a rather good cake (and/or database).

This procedure breaks down for management. I do not think there is a single recipe that applies in all situations. To stick with the cooking metaphor, sometimes you need to bake a cake and sometimes you need to bake cookies and sometimes you need to make lasagne, and trying to apply the cake recipe in a lasagne situation is just not going to work.

So before I can start telling you how to bake your cake, I have to teach you how to recognize whether you need to make cookies or lasagne instead of a cake, and that turns out to be a fairly complicated decision to make. After over a decade making these decisions, I can usually differentiate cake situations from lasagne situations, but teaching someone else how to make the call is still really challenging.

And if you get it wrong and need to correct, you don’t get to iterate, really. You get to solve a whole new set of problems, now probably made worse by the fact that you tried to use a cake recipe to make lasagne.

My husband sometimes asks me for management advice, and once I give him my opinion on his particular situation, he’ll often nod, agree that what I suggest is a good approach, and then tell me that it feels like common sense. He’s right: one of the weirdest things about reading about how to be a better manager is that a lot of what you read feels downright obvious… and yet somehow, wasn’t.

I think the cake vs. lasagne thing is the reason for that. The solution is often obvious once you know whether you need to make a cake or a lasagne. The best management advice writing helps you see what it is you need to make, so that you can pick the right recipe.

I first learned project management in an environment where I didn’t have to worry about whether I should make a cake or lasagne. There were only cake projects there, and there was a pretty well documented recipe to follow, with quite a bit of information about how to customize for a chocolate cake vs. a pineapple upside down cake. By the time I ran into lasagne projects I had enough experience to at least recognize that a cake recipe just wouldn’t work in that situation, no matter how much I customized it.

I started this blog partially to give myself a space where I could try to work out how best to teach someone how to do what I do when I run a project. I’ve been picking off some aspects- how to slip a schedule, how to write a status report, etc- and I have also identified some things you have to think about no matter what type of project you’re running. You should always consider your risks, for instance. (Oops, turns out that is only in my Better Projects course. I should write a post about that). I think I also need to take a step back and write about how to know what it is you need to do in the first place. I touch on that a bit in a lot of my posts, but maybe I should try to go all the way back to the beginning in the decision tree.

That’s going to be hard to do, but I think it will be worth the effort. It will have to wait for another time, though. All this talk of cake and lasagne has made me a bit hungry.
Image source: Wikipedia, marked as public domain.

One Comment

  1. DeeAnn Visk said:

    Love your analogies to making the correct food item. Although it makes me hungry, too!

    December 1, 2015

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