Managing is hard. It often involves loads of responsibility without commensurate control; it is sometimes thankless and unrewarding; and it always involves working with people that have a variety of often divergent goals and personalities. And, just when you think you have it all figured out, the team or project changes and you need to adopt a new set of rules.
I don’t use the word rules here arbitrarily. Every manager needs rules. If not for their team, at least for themselves. Rules help a manager bound the actions of his/her team and keep the team moving in the same direction, even when its members seem to all have a different compass. Rules also help a manager get things done in a somewhat repeatable fashion and to keep his/her sanity while doing it.
I find basic rules calming. They may not always accomplish what I hope they do, but they certainly make me feel better. Many years ago I established a rule for myself for how I would use simple questions in my practice of management. For me, keeping these questions straight became a cornerstone of my management style – the simple questions I asked and how and when I asked them set the baseline for the culture of the group and how things worked within it.
As you might expect, the questions were simply, how, what when and why . . .
- The first questions are directed to the manager him/herself. It’s the manager’s job to be able to answer the basic questions of what and why. That is, what needs to be done and why the group needs to do it. Answering these questions and making those answers profoundly clear to the group is the most important part of how a manager leads. Good and meaningful answers will compel the team to rise to the occasion and carry the successful completion of the project as their own. They can be motivational and exciting. Ultimately, they paint a picture of what can be if great things are achieved with the project and they make people feel great being a part of it.
- The next question is directed to the group now charged with the project at hand. The manager needs to ask the group when the project will meet certain milestones, the biggest of which is, of course, “when will it be done?” By letting the group members determine when milestones will be achieved, they become deeply involved with the project, taking it on as their own. Generally speaking, they also usually know a lot more about what needs to be done than the manager and are better equipped to answer this question correctly.
- Inevitably, milestones will be missed and new information that will feed back into the direction of the project will be discovered. It’s then the manager’s job to ask why. It’s very important that the manager and team understand why problems have occurred so that adjustments can be made to the project or even the team, itself. It’s also almost guaranteed that new information about the project and how it is being completed will be learned along the way. This information needs to be exposed as soon as possible to have the most positive effect on what is happening.
- Hows are questions asked by the group members of themselves. Hows form the basis of the key challenges of the jobs of each member of the group. Each person being able to manage how things are done for their part of the project is motivating. Completing a task as outlined and planned by oneself is even more motivating. When people are told what to do and how to do it, they’ll almost never get motivated by the project. If they get to invent, plan, discover and implement themselves, though, they will be driven by their ownership of their work and will take pride in its successful completion.
That’s it. Pretty simple. Of course that doesn’t encapsulate the entire range of management questions that need to be put forward, but it’s a great start. Keep in mind that it’s not only the particular questions that make this basic rule powerful, it’s how and when you ask them.
Additionally, remember that none of these questions gets asked just once. They should be asked throughout the execution of the project. For very senior groups they might just be asked once in a while. For junior ones, they should get asked much more frequently, even multiple times per week. Asking the questions, including those directed to the manager, keeps the group aligned, informed and motivated. A simple management rule that goes a long way.