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July - 2008 - issue > Management
Successfully Managing Complex Software Product Teams
Rudra Mukherjee
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
The primary meaning of the word ‘manage’ is, “To bring about or succeed in accomplishing a task, sometimes despite difficulty or hardship.”

Although, when we talk about ‘managing’ in a professional setup, the word doesn’t carry the same connotation; all of us should agree that ‘management’ becomes significant only when there are difficulties or constraints. The more constraints, the more significant the manager’s role becomes. Constraints can either be organizational or in terms of resources and skill sets. Each organization has its own business goals, HR policies, administration style, employee compensation, and so forth. These can become constraints when they do not align with the individual requirements or objectives of the employees. However each organization has certain USPs – these could be in terms of the technical nature of the work, brand equity, growth prospective, and of course the HR policies. These could be thought of as tools in the hands of managers that can motivate people and align them to the organization. If one factor becomes a constraint, another tool could be used. The important thing to understand is that it is you, the manager, who has to solve the puzzle. That’s what you are paid for—not to complain that a person in your team is leaving because your organization is not paying enough or push for an out-of-turn promotion just to appease a particular individual.

Task Managers versus People Managers
On one extreme, there are managers who are only concerned with the work and ignore the interests of the team members. On the other side there are managers who always tend to side with the people even at the cost of business impacts. While most managers fall somewhere in-between, it’s a delicate task to balance the business and personal needs of the team-members. What is important is sensitivity and empathy. Thanks to the booming service industry (read ‘body-market’) of today, it’s common to refer to employees as ‘resources’. Yes, employees are resources, but they are humans first. You need to connect to the minds of people in order for them to really put in their best for you. Don’t treat them as machines where you give some inputs and expect predictable outputs.

Any situation that causes a conflict has to be handled with sensitivity; you need to put yourself in the shoes of the concerned individuals and then judge the situation. Remember, each of your actions or decisions is followed closely by every member of your team. For example, if a team member gets an out-of-turn promotion, the manager must make it a point to state the reason, so that the others do not feel upset or discouraged. Always be genuine and honest: integrity is always a safe bet.

Make sure that your team is not being constantly overworked. Stretching occasionally is acceptable, but it should not become a practice. If you’re constantly making your team slog, it may give you good short-term returns, but it’s not a stable scenario in the long run. Beyond a certain threshold, it starts causing frustration; expectations for recognition or special compensation become difficult to manage; and eventually the results are disastrous. Remember, efficiency is what is important – to work smart, not work hard.

Responsibility for the Team’s Professional Development
Invest your time bringing your team members up to a level where they can make valuable contributions, not only at the project level but also at the business level. You need to plan the growth for each of your team members, identify his or her weaknesses, work closely with him or her to overcome them, and chart out a roadmap for his or her growth as objectively as possible. It’s important for you to keep the organizational priorities in mind while you do this.

Organizations developing products at the higher end of the technical spectrum may not need a lot of managers; rather, they need architects who can come up with innovative ideas and develop state of the art technologies. However, unfortunately in India, the goal of most engineers is to become a manager within the shortest possible time. As managers, you need to motivate people towards staying on and rising on the technical ladder. You should convey that management is a role, not a coveted honor. You ought to highlight the value of architects as being on par or even higher than managers in certain respects. If done effectively, this has the added benefit of managing people’s expectations for advancement. Overall, it creates a win-win situation for everybody—the organization, the engineers, and for you the manager.

Tips for a Manager’s Success
A manager must take the initiative to define his own career path and not completely depend on the higher management to give direction. Try to understand the business perspective and align yourself to the business goals. You should set your personal objectives and align your team accordingly. The first step is to ensure that you have the right set of people. While inducting a person in the team, consider not only the technical capabilities but also observe the body language and attitude. An important criterion is stability. Also probe his career aspirations and see if he aligns with what you are offering, what you need, and what you can satisfy him with.

Once the team is formed, the most important thing is to motivate and retain the team. Identify the right set of motivational tools for each individual. Never think of salary as the only tool to retain people because others can easily match it. Always remind your team members of the value they are getting from the job and show them their career path within the company. Highlight the importance of their role in specific projects and the difference they are making for the business.

Try to get visibility and recognition for your team, not only in-house but also outside the company. Often, a manager climbs the success ladder but forgets his or her team members. A good manager grows with the team. Remember that most people see the whole team—not just the manager. Delegate responsibilities to your team members and urge them to play a bigger role than the minimum expectation. This way you can mature your team quickly. Work on creating the right work culture within the team. People should work as a team, but at the same time, there should be a spirit of healthy competition. A team’s work-culture derives from the manager’s style of management. Finally, always be aware of business priorities and focus on targets that actually make real impact on the business, and consequently gain recognition for you and your team.

Summing it up
Always ask yourself what value you are adding to the company. Keep in mind that a manager’s capabilities are not only measured by his or her technical competence, but also by the leadership skills and ability to motivate and mentor the team. The success of a manager depends on how well the team-members bond and showcase their technical abilities, the manager’s way of communication and relationship with peers, and ultimately the number of business successes brought to the organization by the product being managed by him or her.

The author is Senior Manager, Mentor Graphics
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