Amoebic management: it’s just “stimulus, response”

Far Side - Stimulus, Response - dont you ever think?
Far Side (c) Gary Larson - from The Prehistory of the Far Side

People often talk of management – or of whole teams and departments – being reactive rather than pro-active, or grumble that they are always “fire-fighting”.

Unless you work in a fire department, then this isn’t a particularly effective way to operate. Symptoms to watch out for:
– You can’t plan ahead.
– Every day (or hour) brings a new “highest priority” and you have to drop everything.
– Your business has a strategy, but for the life of you, you cannot see how your job is actually delivering that strategy.
– Projects and initiatives never seem to get delivered, or if they do, they are shadows of their intended selves.
– Buzzwords like ITIL and Prince2 are used to describe the way the department works – at least in job adverts – but for every process, there’s at least one workaround. And managers, who should be measuring and enforcing processes are often the most likely to subvert them.

What you have here is dysfunctional management, or “Amoebic management”. Just like the dysentery, it’s messy, completely knocks all power out of you, and can be fatal!

Why Amoebic? Because it demonstrates no ability to think. It’s just stimulus (the latest blow-up) > response (“quick: drop everything and do this, now!”).

It’s a vicious cycle. Without a plan, or practice at ignoring the urgent to focus on the important, it’s very difficult to make a change to behaviour stick. A single manager – sufficiently senior – can disrupt efforts to break the cycle. And if folk are used to always saying “yes” to important people, and have no tools to help them, then they’ll agree (“just this once”) to break process (again). Old habits die hard.

So what tools help? Some simple ones make a huge difference:
* a resource plan showing what work people are committed to (that they can point to if asked to work on something else)
* a formal, logged escalation process to senior management for any urgent items (that can be reviewed at the end of the week to see what was escalated by whom, and whether it was correctly dealt with). This is just a spreadsheet and an agreement – very light touch.
* visible and unequivocal communication from the top that work must be planned, and process followed. With visible measures of how well the department follows this edict (using the escalation spreadsheet above).

These simple steps put in place a system that empowers people to turn down random work requests, with a safety valve that allows managers to discuss and agree if any exceptions are permitted. Finally, you can see how bad the problem is, and also (crucially) see whether people are getting better or worse. Visibility tames the urge to sneak more work in, and finally you can settle down to deliver some really valuable projects!

Of course, it may just show that you haven’t enough resources to support existing services as well as deliver projects, but now managers can start fixing that problem too…

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