Management is priorities

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A lot of what is written about management is pure fluff. But a few things are keepers, and one day I stumbled across something worth putting in "the file." A successful manager at Microsoft shares a few tips for success, mainly about the power of priorities and knowing when to say no: even to an idea that is good. (I know that this is a totally novel concept for this blog).


Check it out, it's a worthy supplement to your Saturday paper: The Art of Project Management: How to Make Things Happen. Here's a selected quote:


Effective PMs simply consider more alternatives before giving up than other people do. They question the assumptions that were left unchallenged by others, because they came from either a VP people were afraid of or a source of superior expertise that no one felt the need to challenge. The question "How do you know what you know?" is the simplest way to clarify what is assumed and what is real, yet many people are afraid, or forget, to ask it. Being relentless means believing that 99% of the time there is a solution to the problem (including, in some cases, changing the definition of the problem), and that if it can't be found with the information at hand, then deeper and more probing questions need to be asked, no matter who has to be challenged. The success of the project has to come first.

In my years in the Windows division at Microsoft, I worked for Hillel Cooperman, perhaps the most passionate and dedicated manager I've ever had. I remember once coming into his office with a dilemma. My team was stuck on a complicated problem involving both engineering and political issues. We needed another organization to do important work for us, which they were unwilling to do. I had brainstormed with everyone involved, I had solicited opinions from other senior people, but I was still stuck. There didn't seem to be a reasonable solution, yet this was something critical to the project, and I knew giving in would be unacceptable. After explaining my situation, the conversation went something like this: "What haven't you tried yet?" I made the mistake of answering, "I've tried everything." He just laughed at me. "Everything? How could you possibly have tried everything? If you've tried everything, you'd have found a choice you feel comfortable with, which apparently you haven't yet." We found this funny because we both knew exactly where the conversation was going.

He then asked if I wanted some suggestions. Of course I said yes. We riffed for a few minutes, back and forth, and came up with a new list of things to consider. "Who haven't you called on the phone? Email isn't good for this kind of thing. And of all the people on the other side—those who disagree with you—who is most receptive to you? How hard have you sold them on what you want? Should I get involved and work from above you? Would that help? What about our VP? How hard have you pushed engineering to find a workaround? A little? A lot? As hard as possible? Did you offer to buy them drinks? Dinner? Did you talk to them one-on-one, or in a group? Keep going, keep going, keep going. You will find a way. I trust you, and I know you will solve this. Keep going."

He did two things for me: he reminded me that not only did I have alternatives, but also that it was still my authority to make the decision. As tired as I was, I left his office convinced there were more paths to explore and that it was my job to do so. My ownership of the issue, which he'd reconfirmed, helped motivate me to be relentless. The solution was lurking inside one of them, and I just had to find it. Like the dozens of other issues I was managing at the same time, I eventually found a solution (there was an engineering workaround), but only because I hunted for it: it was not going to come and find me.

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