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Wednesday, January 09, 2008
  Billy Martin's Technique for Managing his Manager

A software manager is brought into a doomed project. It is hopelessly behind, the requirements have changed so often they are now kept on a white board instead of in a document, and the office is wallpapered with Dilbert cartoons. She’s replacing the previous manager, who has resigned.

When she gets to her new office, her predecessor is clearing out her desk. “I’ll only be a minute. By the way, I left you something” says the old manager before leaving. After the predecessor leaves, the new manager has a look around, and discovers two envelopes in the top drawer of the desk. The first envelope is labeled “Open when in trouble.” The second is labeled “Open when in even more trouble.”

Well, she researches anti-patterns in software project management, has a look around, talks to everyone, identifies the key players, and goes to management with a clear explanation of what the problems are, what’s realistic to achieve, and what needs to be done. To her surprise, management seems to go along with things and tells her to make whatever changes she needs. She institutes daily builds, stand up meetings, rapid iterations, and starts tracking velocity. Two months later, at the quarterly review, she presents her progress. The team is producing at 200% of the previous rate, morale is up, and they’re going to get 80% of the previous functionality done with less than 90 days of slip off the impossible schedule.

There is silence, then management tells her that this is unacceptable. Sure, they agreed she could institute change. That’s her job. However they did not approve any compromise in scope or delivery date. This is a competitive business, and there are thousands of qualified managers looking for a job who can come in and get things done. Does she want to admit she can’t do her job?

We have assigned a product manager to discuss IBM WebSphere Portal integration with your technical lead. And the VP of Marketing needs to talk to you. We have made a commitment to all-singing, all-dancing web services and he needs a forty-minute presentation explaining how your project will be implemented with web services throughout. You look pale. Is there a problem?

She goes back to her office in a quandary, then remembers the first envelope. Wordlessly, she opens it, and inside there is a three by five card inscribed: Blame Me.

She goes back to management a day later with a powerpoint emphasizing how the project was way off track, how the architecture was fubar, how morale was poor, and how requirements were incorrectly documented. She doesn’t blame the previous manager directly, but she does identify various management techniques and “best practices” that were not enforced prior to her joining the project. She says she will work the team to hit the date, but she demonstrates how commitments made by the previous manager were done without actually checking to see whether the team could deliver or making any changes to actually hit the new dates. After some huffing and puffing, management buys off on delivering 80% of the promised functionality with a 45 day slip in the delivery date. Whew!

Well, things go along quite well until two weeks before the original due date. Management calls her in and asks her to sit on the release planning board, there will be a major customer release in two weeks. She reminds them of the 45 day slip they negotiated.

“No,” they tell her baldly, “We agreed on delivering 80% of the functionality on the original date and the remaining 20% of the functionality 45 days later in release 1.1. Furthermore, we are entering into a strategic agreement with IBM and have assigned a product manager to discuss IBM WebSphere Portal integration with your technical lead. And the VP of Marketing needs to talk to you. We have made a strategic corporate commitment to all-singing, all-dancing web services and he needs a forty-minute presentation explaining how your project will be implemented with web services throughout. You look pale. Is there a problem?” She leaves the meeting aghast.

Well, it’s back to her office and she opens the second envelope with shaking hands. The advice on the card is of little comfort: Cercner gjb rairybcrf.

This story is often told about baseball manager Billy Martin. He managed the Yankees five different times, because he was prepared to be fired when things didn’t work out. The moral of the story: Do the very best you can. Do so because YOU want to do so, regardless of whether you will succeed or not. Regardless of how dysfunctional your organization is, hold your head up and stay true to your values. Give them at least two chances to change. Do what you can to help them change. But if they do not change, move on with dignity.

Update: Someone suggested that the ability to quit your job is a luxury. I don’t like to use that word, because it suggests that the job itself is a luxury. It is possible that the pay cheque is a luxury, but for people who are engaged in their careers, the job is a necessity because their self-actualization depends on doing a good job. When you put it that way, the question becomes whether people have the luxury of remaining in a job where they don’t feel good about themselves and what they do.

p.s. Yes, she’s actually a woman. Which is why I used the word “she.”

Comments on “Billy Martin's Technique for Managing his Manager:
Great anectode. In spirit of change your organization or change your organization :)
I'd originally heard this as 3 envelopes (http://www.notboring.com/jokes/work/3.htm) but 2 sounds 50% faster, so that's a win right there.

I origionally heard it as three stories, but I've already played the shaggy dog story card, so I need to trim the fat.

Also, I was trying to change the focus from the manager being a hapless victim into someone who could take action, evangelize change, and move on if the seeds were falling on barren ground :-)
I thought the original joke was about Brezhnev and Kruschev - at least that's how it was depicted in the movie Traffic.

Pretty old joke though reg ;)
I thought the original joke was about Brezhnev and Kruschev... Pretty old joke

Try to remember that I have been alive during both of those gentleman's reigns, so while the joke may be old, I may be older :-)

That being said, I would not be surprised if an Egyptologist were to discover hieroglyphics ending with the phrase “Prepare two scrolls…”
I think of the old Kenny Rogers song, "The Gambler", where he sings

"You've got to know when the hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run."

It's important that you keep your integrity: you shouldn't quit or threaten to quit because of every little disagreement, but doing the wrong thing under management pressure can do so much harm to your organization, it's customers, your career, your health and the welfare of the people around you -- doing the wrong thing under management pressure WILL get you fired, and you'll get back on your feet better if you quit. Take it from me.

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Reg Braithwaite

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