Silver Bullets, Workshops and Workbenches


My dad has a workshop at the back of his garage.   He builds, he hacks, he plays.   It’s magical.

Dad’s great with craft projects!  Sometimes, he does all the work, like cutting scrap wood into paintable shapes for our little people.  Other times, I’ve seen how to use a new tool — like a drill press (for a bookbinding project.)

At work, we often want to “workshop” a people management skill.  Or a team-building challenge.

We want the workshop — or retreat — to be a solution.   Sometimes we want too much.

At best, workshops give people:

  • Exposure to new skills.   Maybe a bit of practice, in vitro.
  • Novel ways to meet colleagues, outside of the daily flow of work.
  • Ways to search, together, for a common understanding.
  • (Fulfillment of compliance requirements.)

Before jumping into a workshop — especially if we want to solve a problem — ask a few key questions:

  • How will workshop content/design move us towards our desired end state?
  • Do our people see workshops as great development opportunities?   Or a barrier to getting their “real work” done?
  • In the weeks and months that follow, how will our leaders support and reinforce people’s learning?

Also ask, “What might go wrong?”

Layering a team building exercise on top of existing relationship issues?  It might not end well.   (I still remember the relationship fallout of a 1990s exercise in game theory.)

I suspect that the term “workshop” comes from the entertainment industry.  “Workshopping” is a low-cost, high impact way to test and get feedback on a play.

Workshops and retreats are expensive in time.   And potentially in relationship, too.  (Ask the boomers in your life about Trust Falls.)

After working with my dad at his workbench, maybe I’m qualified to drill holes through paper, fabric, and cardboard.   I wouldn’t use the drill press unsupervised, or on wood or metal.

“Begin with the end in mind,” is a Stephen Covey principle.   It’s a good one to consider when investing your resources in a learning program.

Leaving a workshop, I expect to have a change in state.  A transformation.

And yet, no workshop or retreat is a silver bullet.

It’s also not a workbench.  When I walk away from Dad’s workbench, we have created a tangible artifact.  Something that will exist in the world.   I’m thinking about this lately, out talking with people about useful workplace learning experiences.

Photo:  Workbench, by Lenore Erdman, via Flickr under CC 2.0 license.

What’s An Emerging Manager?

under original management againMedicine has interns and residents.  The law has clerks.  The fire service has “probies.”

In tech, we have the notion of a “junior programmer.”

In management, there’s no understood role for a “junior manager.”

This is important.

Once, corporations and the military cranked out America’s managers.

These were not good old days.  There was no golden age of management.

However, there was a notion of “readiness” to manage at a particular level.

Like today, pedigree mattered.  Readiness was assessed by experienced managers, mostly white men.  I don’t imagine that readiness was consistent across industries.   It didn’t need to be:  more people spent their entire career in one industry.

Readiness contained a lot of stuff.  Including actual readiness.   (There’s baby in that bathwater.)

In 2014, I spent some attention considering how we develop managers today, in the absence of structures that used to serve this purpose.

And I started to talk with people about The Emerging Manager.

The Emerging Manager is an individual who has been managing people for somewhere between several weeks and several years.

She might be a developer leading a team for the first time.   Or, he might be a startup CEO or founder.  An emerging manager might lead 2 people, or 60.   She might be 23, and barely out of school; or 45, with a track record as a subject matter expert.

So being an emerging manager isn’t about career experience, or time in the job — though learning to manage people is a 10,000 hour endeavor.  It’s not about the size of the team.

“Emerging” happens in the first hundreds and thousands of hours of learning to manage people.  The work is to develop fluency in a set of basic management skills.

  • Setting, communicating goals; delegating work; giving people feedback
  • Interviewing/hiring with consistent results; advocating for your team/people; managing conflict
  • Addressing performance issues to a satisfactory conclusion; developing other managers; managing extreme change

In a way, these groupings are skill levels.   (It’s a little more complicated, too complicated for today’s post.)

Any emerging manager who wants to plug away at this for long enough will develop a solid proficiency — under the right conditions.

Some of the right conditions:

  • Setting an intentional path through the learning process
  • Finding mentors and coaches
  • Working in an environment with some structure and process around the work of management
  • And…the emerging manager has to want to develop this expertise.

“Subject matter expertise” is not included in any of these groups.   Not because it’s not important.   But because it’s not an emerging management skill.

I’ll come back to this here.   And also next week in a talk at BrooklynJS, where I’ll be presenting some thoughts on programmers as Emerging Managers.   Sign up to join us!

Update:  here’s a link to the slides for my BrooklynJS talk.   Thanks for the warm welcome, BrooklynJS.   And special thanks to the person in the crowd who whooped when I mentioned that my dad had been a programmer at Univac in 1960.   Dad loved hearing this!

Photo: Adapted from Somethings new change by Stephen Dann, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.