The curse of middle management

In a not so distant past, I was a project manager.

I scoped projects, cleared the way for my team and solved problems when they arose.

And boy, did they arise.

I used to joke that customers only gave me their worst projects. The dumpster fires that nobody else wanted to handle. That one-year project that’s 2 years behind schedule. The one where the entire team quit. The one where a company lawyer joined each Scrum ceremony.

There is something about the role of a crisis manager that’s highly attractive to problem solvers. It almost becomes an engineering problem. Diagnose the main issues, install a workaround and work out a plan to recover. Fixing a bad project was like fixing a water leak: turn off the main valve, find the broken pipe and replace it. The truth is, it’s obviously not an engineering problem. It’s a people problem.

My customers were always happy to have me on board. They loved it when I identified the broken pipe and they applauded when I closed the valve. And then, while working furiously to replace it, they’d always decide to go water the lawn. What?

It seemed that as soon as the recovery plan was in effect, the crisis was averted in their minds. On to the next one.

It looked to me as if companies worked hard to shoot themselves in the foot. To sabotage their own projects. I would see colleagues working hard to create performant teams and then be rewarded with a “resource shuffle”. A project that was finally on-track was merged with a poisonous mess for efficiency reasons.

IT projects often feel like being a doctor to a horrible patient. Their bloodwork came back clean for the first time since that liver transplant and now they’re going to celebrate with tequila shots.

It took me a few years to understand what’s going on. When the leadership is unable to set a calm pace, companies are in a constant state of crisis. A manager’s job is not to manage a team or to deliver a great product. They are hired just to put out a certain fire. As long as that inferno is raging, they get all the tools. The minute a workaround is in place, some other calamity gets priority. The result is a house where all leaks are patched, but where no water comes out of the tap. Every room has a plumber who’s frustrated that they took away half of her toolbox.

Middle management is a reflection of the strength of the top leadership. A PM can amplify a great vision but can’t negate the effects of a lack of leadership. That’s the curse of middle management.

When focus constantly shifts and the company is in reactive mode, you can’t build a damn thing.

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