Managers! Don’t commit to the ruck!

I like a sporting analogy, but not everyone does. You choose.

I used to watch a bit of rugby. One of the great things about rugby is that it’s messy. Not as in roll-around-on-the-floor messy but as in the best bits come from “broken play”* where things that should have been a set piece don’t come off and then chaos ensues.

Hang on Jenkins, I think Psmith’s got a broken arm.

And there is a range of overlapping specialists; obviously, at the international level, everyone can do everything, but when you see a specialist up against the wrong person, it looks comically bad. The key thing is to get your heavy hitters – the “forwards” – into position to hit the other team and then get the ball to your runners – the “backs”. If you are lucky/skilful you have your forwards compete in close combat with their backs and your backs compete in running, open play with their forwards, so you win the tackles in the mud and then outrun them in the field.

One of my favourite players from back in the day was coiffured pretty-boy Welshman Gavin Henson. He of the orange tan and gold shoes. He played in a centre position, traditionally a role for a person with a quick mind and two good feet. However, Henson was built like a forward and was a great tackler. In one match, he famously halted a charging English player, picked him up and physically carried him back several metres.

Not illegal, he put him down gently. And not on his head.

But, I noticed that he often would make half a tackle, knock someone over and then release them without obtaining the ball, or actually slide out the way and let someone else take the hit. Other players ended up scrambling for the ball, when he could have got it himself from his half tackle. How LAZY, how STUPID of him. After about a year, it dawned on me that he knew more about rugby than me, and he was actually not avoiding work he was avoiding being distracted from his real job. His real job was to stay on his feet and direct play. It would be so easy to get drawn into the fight, but if he had committed himself into those rucks then he would not be doing what he was paid to do, which was to be the “elephant herder” and direct the heavy hitters to where they could have the best effect and force the other team to play in their areas of weakness.

So, as a manager, what should you be doing? I think you’ve guessed.

Should you be diving in to “save” tasks and doing them yourself? After all, you know that work well, and you probably find it more rewarding than going to meetings and writing up 360 reviews and looking at the project plans and what’s beyond the project plans. It will be quicker if you do it. Developing software is a lot easier than developing people, so it feels good to “get something done”. It drives me insane when managers say “I want to get out of these meetings and get some work done!” No. Those meetings are your work.

Yes, your role overlaps with the developer role; yes, they need to pull their weight on the vision and you need to understand the code. But you need to direct your team so they are playing in an area of strategic strength; don’t let them squander their energy by playing on your own try line, where every missed tackle means a catastrophe.

If you dive down onto the task level and into the code, then yes, your viewpoint will be valuable, but you’ll be duplicating the viewpoint of the developers who are in there every day. You need to stand up and take the bird’s eye view and see what they can’t see from ground level. You are the playmaker; stand back, spot gaps and don’t commit yourself to the ruck.

*Don’t get me started on my Spectrum of Sporting Continuity where I place sports in a range based on how much free play they have to set piece play. Let’s say American Football is practically turn-based; like chess with a “man in motion“. Soccer is nearly all free play, which to my mind makes the game too formless. Anywho. Far better to meta-analyse sport than watch it.

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