IT offices too often harbor 'the managerial deadzone
Dilbert is not a cartoon; it's a documentary. This nationally syndicated feature
depicts a complex mix of altruism and cynicism in the life of a software engineer.
It seems that Dilbert's frustrations and occasional triumphs resonate with the
experience of fedearl IT workers, if the frequency that the comic strip appears on their
walls and doors is any measure. As a body, the cartoon series could be called
"Dilbert's Guide to Managing Information Technology."
Dilbert finds himself chronically in the clutches of what one management consultant has
labeled "the managerial deadzone." What is the managerial deadzone? I was
present when an impressively pedigreed consultant explained the concept to a hall packed
with hundreds of federal IT managers.
The MDZ is the land of surreal bureaucratic turf wars where first-, second-, third- and
nth-level supervisors schmooze, scratch and claw their way to the top. The MDZ is a black
hole that swallows up creativity and initiative with memos, studies, analyses, surveys and
"We have met the enemy of reinvention, and he is us," declared the
consultant, echoing Pogo (hero of another insightful comic strip).
Dilbert's arch-nemesis is his boss, a man with the technical insight of tree and the
people skills of a water cooler. (Perhaps I should apologize to trees and water coolers
for the implied slight.)
Obsessed with appearances and compliance, the inept supervisor has little appreciation
for the efforts and contributions of his staff. Like a cowardly general, he is precisely
the antithesis of the leader his high-tech team requires if they are to excel.
How do people like that rise to the top? There is an unfortunate trend toward the
belief that management is perfectly transferable, a skill independent of what is managed.
Many of the techniques and skills of management are indeed universal. But the skills
alone are not enough to gain the respect and support of the employees. Managers who never
have hung a tape or torn paper off a high-speed printer are put in charge of computer
centers. People who never have written a line of code are made supervisors of programmers
and systems analysts.
It can be disheartening to get orders from someone who has no idea of what you do to
execute them. To compound the problem, managers typically pick those like themselves to
manage subordinate units. When non-technical managers run technical organizations, they
naturally favor those with similar skill sets.
I've even heard IT managers crow about how non-technical they are. Although it can be
valuable to know how to turn weaknesses into strengths, one should avoid doing so in a
manner that alienates one's subordinates.
If Tom Peters is correct in saying that management is about "doing the thing
right," then a good manager must understand how to do and understand it well. The
belief that a good manager can manage anything sends a message that technical skills are
not what's valued by the organization. As the adage says, "The experts are on tap,
not on top."
Even more distressing is the common belief that management skills are the same as
leadership skills. A leader has vision, integrity, courage and love for those who have
chosen to follow. He or she must be willing to "put it all on the line" before
asking the same of those behind.
The leader is the shepherd: tending, healing, encouraging and serving. The wise leader
understands that followership is a choice. Unfortunately, many in positions of
responsibility do not believe this is true.
Absent technical expertise, one can succeed with good leadership and management skills.
But when a manager has fewer than only one of these abilities, employee resistance can be
insurmountable. Leadership, management, technical skills: Pick two to survive.
The Dilbert Zone can be found at http://www.unitedmedia.com/comics/dilbert/.
If your management bans the posting of subversive literature, you can adopt last
Sunday's full color cartoon as your PC's wallpaper or your browser's home page. That way
you always will have the reassuring presence of Dilbert, who understands your plight when
the boss does not.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.//cpcug.org/user/houser/.