Jake Trent

More Managers, More Priorities

If we’re not careful, the number of priorities will grow directly with the number of managers. Since a singular priority is the most useful kind of priority, this is a bad thing.

Growing managers, growing priorities

It might not be universal, I can’t say. But it sure is observable and repeatable. If you hire more managers, you’ll get more things to do – more competing priorities.

Perhaps this is related to the common pitfall of solving most organizational problems with hiring. Perhaps its just the easiest management strategy. Things seem to tend that way.

Managers manage… something

Managers have to have something to manage, something to own. Else, why are they there? If it’s just to look after people, they’ll be a micromanager in no time and make their employees nervous and annoyed. So, they’ve got to have something to do.

And managers, like many workers, are often evaluated based on their impact. If they find a big initiative to take on, it’ll show… initiative. But it’s easy to confuse that busyness with helpful motion.

And we all like new and shiney things. There’s the ever-present promise of the future. It will be solved as soon as we build the next big thing.

Managers need workers

So, new managers lead to new initiatives, and those things need a new team. These are connected. One predicts the other. Getting manager heavy, then, can quickly overburden the system.

So why were the managers hired in the first place? Probably because the company was trying to do too much. The problem is circular.

Real priorities

We have to choose what’s really important to us – to the business. It has to be strategic. The best priority is one priority. We work on it until it is delivered. It is, after all, the thing that will be of greatest value. There aren’t two of those. If we delivered on this priority, it’d be the best possible thing we could do.

This isn’t easy. Making a decision to do one thing means precluding another. And envisioning that priority usefully is a challenge as well. It has to be more concrete than the “Be the best at X by the end of the year”.

Once the strategic priority is concrete enough to act under, the initiatives that spawn as children from managers and teams don’t have the be different or separate. They can directly contribute to the one overall priority. Instead of doing one of everything, we can get everyone working on one thing. If there are a bunch of managers with teams that don’t seem to be able to contribute meaningfully, that’s another choice that having a clear priority helps make. And it will be painful to reverse this trend.

Caveats

Of course, there are exceptions. What about the value of diversifying the bets we take in business? What about the teams that need to keep infrastructure working for all these iniatives that rely on it? What about span of control limitations for a manager? Yes, exceptions. But they should be seen that way. Or other solutions besides increasing the number of managers should be examined. It’s too easy to have too many priorities and then too many managers and then too many initiatives, teams, and a system that can’t keep up with everything it’s committed to do.

A bit rambly because this touches tons of issues? Yes.

Hard problems? Yes.

Perhaps the first priority is to solve this problem: Make a single, concrete priority and organize such that every manager and team works on it.