The topic of management is quite complex by itself. Therefore I won’t be able to discuss all its aspects here. I will focus only on specific takeaways which are relevant to the book from my experience as a manager.
From multiple pieces of evidence in military history, people management and human psychology, it is known that people have some limits on their capacity to effectively interact with multiple objects or other people. The most common estimate of these limits is up to 5 or 7 effective interactions or connections. Of course, people are different, and some might handle less or more of these numbers, but the key word here is “effectively.” You won’t find many mentions of effective teams where one leader effectively led tens or hundreds of people directly. The famous two pizza rule, often credited to Jeff Bezos, is another presentation of this concept.
Now, back to the IT theater of operation. Concerning effective management, IT operation or software development is no different from the military experience of effective communication with your squad or other troops. The core component in both cases is humans — the same biological species. When you as a manager are trying to manage more and more subordinates directly, you will eventually fail to scale. It is simple math: if you have to communicate with more people, you will devote less average time to each fellow. This will inevitably lead to sacrificing the quality of communication for quantity, having frequent interruptions in your everyday work and feeling shallow connections with people you depend on. Of course, as an IT person you can email, chat, tweet, create tasks in tracking software, have Skype calls with colleagues all over the globe and make your communication process more efficient, but all these doesn’t change the fact that you have a limited amount of energy and time to spend each day.
Another critical aspect of effective management is the delegation of responsibility. Multiple kinds of phycological research suggest that people perform better when they are trusted and empowered at their work. When an engineer or a team leader is given freedom to do their best and feels responsible for the results of his or her actions, you as their superior have higher chances to observe better results of their work.
From my experience, delegation is one of the hardest skills to grasp. Many first-time managers tend to do as much as possible by themselves and believe that if they tell their teammate to do a task, the result will be not as good and timely as delivered by the manager. Not all beginner managers overcome their doubts about delegation because it has to do with trust. A manager has to learn how to trust his or her teammates and make direct subordinates accountable for their decisions. Without these crucial skills, you cannot become an effective leader.
Plan and execute
Despite its obviousness, many people, including myself, again and again, fail to follow this simple rule – think first, act second. Observing the betrayal of this principle many times, I came to the conclusion that it is neither good nor bad but depends on a situation. Thinking in advance is a higher cognitive function then reflex action. When you are faced with the immediate threat to your life or the lives of your family members, the speed of your reaction to that threat plays a vital role in the survival process. However, in more complex situations, for instance, when the danger is not so direct or clear, the pattern of planning your actions before executing them proved to be more effective. Let’s illustrate this point.
From military history, the ability to act quickly gives you a significant advantage on a battlefield. You can just take the lead over your opponent. On the other hand, simple human reactions are well known and could be used by the opponent to predict your next moves and lure you to a trap. This is also true for military training when soldiers are trained for some simple actions to be acquired reflexes. A more experienced enemy can use the knowledge of these behavioral patterns for your disadvantage in some cases.
From IT best practices, when dealing with an incident or system outage, one of the key goals is to recover to normal operation as soon as possible. To achieve this goal, IT personnel is trained and provided with preferably short and straightforward instructions on what to do in such cases. When the speed matters and you are under pressure, it is best to follow some predetermined plan in most cases. You intentionally sacrifice the quality of a solution for its speed. However, when you observe some incidents occur again and again, the fast solution might be not the best choice. To prevent such events from happening, you spend more time preparing and planning your steps, especially if they suppose the involvement of other people, to obtain better results on complex actions.
IT field is not a single-play game anymore. You will have to communicate, discuss and cooperate with your colleagues. To act effectively as a whole team, you will have to plan and coordinate your actions. The team members should know and clearly understand a common goal and how they are going to get there. Having a plan that is well-understood by your squad is much better than not having it.
Lead up the chain of command
This principle was somewhat new for me then already learned and applied. I can recall many situations at work when I feel puzzled with the resistance or ignorance of my superiors when I suggested some improvements or asked for approval. At first, you might think that it is your boss who does not understand and support you. That he or she is a bad leader. At second glance, you might ask yourself, whether the root of the issue is on your side.
It seems apparent that you as a leader should put effort into explaining to your subordinates what and why they should do. On the contrary, often you miss doing the same towards your manager. You might be conceived that your manager must catch the meaning at once because, well, he or she is your manager and must be smarter than you just be the fact that he or she is your superior. Believe me, this is not how the chain of command works.
To keep the explanation short, let’s refer to the “Blame yourself first” principle, described in Part 1. It is your responsibility to provide your manager with enough information on your intents and ensure that he or she can clearly understand your plans and its goals. And, yes, sometimes you will have to put even more effort in explaining to your manager than to your teammates.
The conclusion, I made for myself after reading about this concept, is not to rush with blaming a higher manager, but to ask first yourself a question whether I provided them with sufficient details and clear reasoning of my intents or past actions.
Undoubtedly, all previously mentioned principles worth nothing until you decide to apply them at work and in your personal life. I personally often find myself postponing some decisions again and again until I am finally forced to choose, and I am still looking for what it takes to me to make up my mind.
From a work perspective, let’s refer to the example given in Part 1 – Keep it simple. When changing the configuration of the IT system and discovering some obstacles that prevent you from implementing a change plan, you cannot just stop and do nothing or leave it be. You must choose whether to push forward and try to overcome the obstacles or fall back to the previous system state. There is no middle ground – the IT system must be up and running correctly to serve its customers.
The similar situation happens in people management and business decision making. There always will be a point when you have to make your choice – to give an underperforming employee a second chance and put yourself and business at risk or to dismiss him or her; to start a new risky venture or to stick to a proven method in your business field.
As for now, I came to the belief that decisiveness is rather a personality trait than a principle or rule. From my observations, some people tend to make quick decisions starting from their childhood, some learn this ability thought trial and error and some just stay indecisive all their lives. The key idea here is to remember that in any situation even if you stay indecisive, you a still choosing to do so or, to put it another way, deciding to do nothing. Consequently, it is you who takes the responsibility both for your action and inaction.
To finish my notes, I just want to point out that the idea of owning your life and the underlying principles discussed above are not easy and undemanding. On the contrary, I can assure you that reading or listening to these concepts and learning them from your own experience are two totally different levels of understanding. Nevertheless, “Extreme Ownership” is definitively worth reading regardless of your management experience or industry.
So, go, grab this book, read it and share your thoughts in the comments!