Good Project Managers Don't Move Employees Like Chess Pieces | TechWell

Good Project Managers Don't Move Employees Like Chess Pieces

Many years ago I started a job as a contract manager, and it became clear I had a big problem. I had developers who knew one area of the code well. I had testers who knew not much of any area of the code well, even though they had worked for the organization for some time. Why? They had been shuffled from one project to another almost every month for years.

This project needed to finish in eight weeks, I needed to hire my replacement, and the people were shell shocked having one manager after another. I was the fourth director of software development in six months.

I decided to make a project portfolio and rank the projects. I knew about this first project, but what were second and third?

Next, I asked people what they wanted to work on. I was sure people could select their areas of responsibility. I was using a staged delivery lifecycle, so we had cross-functional teams and we worked by feature.

Then I asked the teams to develop their deliverables in two-week chunks: What deliverables, as in features, could they deliver in the next two weeks working as a cross-functional team?

The teams began to come together. They started to work across the code—not just in one area of the code. It wasn’t perfect, but it was better. The testers expanded their knowledge because they were able to focus on the entire product. The developers learned the product end to end. The writers were happier because people answered their questions.

About three weeks into this, a crisis happened with the second-ranked project. A senior manager wanted to yank a bunch of people off the top-ranked project and put them onto the second-ranked project. He told me I had to give him people—and I told him no.

“I have no one for you, and I won’t for another two weeks," I said. "We only have eight people. We can’t multitask. Moving people off and onto projects as if they are chess pieces doesn’t make sense. This top-ranked project has two more weeks to go, and then it’s done. Then, I can assign all eight people to your project. But assigning them now? Craziness.”

Did I want to be nice to the senior manager? Of course. But when you move people like chess pieces, you deny them the opportunity to learn domain expertise. You don’t manage the project portfolio, and you decrease the capacity of your organization. You want to leave people to finish projects and let them create solid teams, and you want to keep people on a product long enough that they develop significant domain expertise.

Good management is not about being nice to everyone all the time. Much of management is about saying no when you have toWhen you leave people where they are so they can learn the product and reinforce their teams, you create an environment that allows for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And that’s part of what a great manager does.

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