Managers and Flow

I was just at a conference, and all the talks aimed at management were, well, low density.  Two sentences of information in a 30-minute talk, for example. Normally I would make jokes about it, but I’ve been a director and they didn’t seem that dumb back then…

My usual response was the Dilbert joke, “welcome to marketing, two-drink minimum”.  But I’ve worked for marketing, and they’re not nuts.  Harried, yes, but not nuts.

When I was in management, everything was dealing an ill-organized panics. One day it’s an employee that can’t keep up, the next it’s a customer that likes to not pay, the week after it’s a PM from one VP trying to sabotage a project that belongs to another VP.  Not necessarily fun, but good practice in being calm.

And handling interrupts, way many interrupts.

And escalations. For a while on the way up I was an escalations manager, and for a while I visibly suffered adrenaline exhaustion. It was “exciting”, in the Chinese-curse sense of the word.

The hustle-bustle of the show reminded me of what that was like, and made it hard for me to settle down for a couple of hours and write code. It was hard to get into “flow” state again.

At which the cartoon light-bulb came on over my head. Managers never get into flow state. Everything they do is in short bursts, interrupted, and subject to being swapped out when the next problem comes along. No flow. None.

Hell, developer version.

As a developer, imagine it would be like to live in a world where you never get to concentrate on a problem. Where you can’t stop and read a book. Where you get interrupted in the middle of an important project to deal with an urgent one, and then get interrupted by a more urgent one, and then just get interrupted for something stupid, and then something that’s just weird.

Now try to get back to the important thing.  If you can even remember it existed.

When I was in management, I never had a chance to get into flow state over the things that were important to the business.  As you might guess, that in itself was a business risk. If my decision-making power was degraded by being denied flow state, would I ever get to contribute to something useful ever again? Or would I toss out the first thing that came into  my head?

The latter was a really good description of a former manager of mine.  I fear it might have been a good description of me, back then.

So I think I know why the business talks were so slow, wordy and worked up to the conclusion so slowly.  It was to give the listeners a chance to calm down, think about the problem, and slowly come up to speed about something. To get to flow.

The speakers had figured out how to fight the problem, somewhat. They gave their fragmented, fractured audiences a fair chance to get thinking like human beings again before they drew their conclusions.

What to do?

So, if you’re a manager, and the victim of all this, how to you ever get to flow?  Come in early? That gets you in with the sales-force.  Oops.

Come in late and stay late? That might be better, you’re in with the night-owl developers, who might not interrupt you… unless they learned you were always around.

But one of the smartest directors I ever had was unavailable from two to three PM, because she was in a meeting with her door closed. But that meeting never had any other participants.

She was scheduling time to get to flow, and really think about what she did for a living.




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