How I Learned to Love Middle Managers

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Joel Spolsky explains how he learned to love middle managers — but first, of course, he explains why he ever doubted their value, starting with his own first experience as a low-level manager at Juno:

I was proud to start getting those mass e-mails that were circulated among the managers.

Until I noticed about half the company was on that distribution list.

For a company of Juno’s size — it had about 150 employees at the time — there seemed to be a disproportional number of managers. I think most of them, like me, had only one or two people reporting to them. But it was hard to know for sure, because the org chart wasn’t circulated; apparently, Juno’s top brass were afraid it would fall into the hands of headhunters. So you knew your boss and your team, but unless you were a smoker, you didn’t know any of the people in the other parts of the company.

Unless you were a smoker. I love that bit.

Here’s what really bothered him though:

I noticed too many situations in which members of top management happily issued an executive fiat even though they were the least qualified to make a decision. I’m not saying that they were stupid, mind you. Most of the managers at Juno were quite smart. But they had hired even smarter people to work for them: people with advanced degrees, raw intellectual firepower, and years of experience. And these people would work on a problem for a long time, come up with a pretty good solution, and then watch in surprise as their bosses overruled them. Executives who did not have specific technical knowledge and who had not studied a problem in depth would swoop down and issue some random, uninformed decree, and it would be implemented — often with farcical results. I called it hit-and-run micromanagement, and I suspected that the managers at Juno acted this way only because many of them were young, and that’s how bosses seemed to behave on TV.

His experience at Microsoft was better:

A bit of Redmond lore: Two software designers got into a debate over how something should be implemented. The question was highly technical. They couldn’t reach agreement, so they went to their boss, a guy named Mike Maples, who was the vice president in charge of the applications division.

“What do I know about this?” he yelled at them. “Of the three people in this room, I’m the one who knows the least. You guys have been hashing this out for hours. I’m the last person who should be deciding. Work it out.”

And so they did.

Based on his personal experience, and based on an exciting article about a GE jet engine plant in North Carolina that had 170 employees and just one boss — an article I noted at the time too — he decided to have no middle managers at his new software company.

That worked for a while, but as the company grew the top managers (Joel and his partner) seemed more and more distant, even though they thought they were plugged in and very welcoming. Now everyone’s happy with a bit of middle management.

The lesson:

Don’t believe everything you read in a business magazine. Not even this one.

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