I recently posted a question on LinkedIn that went something like this … "Why do we expect technical managers to learn non-technical (business) skills but we don’t expect business (non-technical) managers to learn technical skills?".
The answers I’ve been getting back have been … illuminating. So far the overwhelming number of responses have been by non-technical managers attempting to explain that a non-technical manager is essential in the development process. Which is true and I don’t disagree with (I’ll get to that later), but the fact is – they haven’t answered the question that’s been asked.
The closest thing to a real answer that’s emerging basically boils down to two things… the first being that technical skills are hard – often very hard and non-technical managers well… aren’t that smart.
Okay so – I’m really paraphrasing here, but that is in essence what’s being said by the majority of people. Basically it’s too hard for them to learn and also keep a full time job. Now, there is a second group which has tried to explain that the reason why non-technical managers should not have to learn technical skills in their job is because it would be a waste of time – since if you manage one kind of resource you can manage any resource. A minor third group has emerged to explain that it really doesn’t matter because the problem lies at the VP level.
Now, all of this is fascinating. But the fact is that no one is actually answering the question directly. In fact, most aren’t answering the question at all. They spend time discussing the why and the how of the question as opposed to actually answering the question. Which I guess underscores that whole "Why does no one get it?" question the technical side of the house seems to attribute to management.
Why can’t they just… answer a question? And why does a simple answer need to be vetted – minced – discussed? Now, for most management situations technical people do "get the reason" for why something needs to be, as I said, vetted, minced and discussed to death… we even accept the occasional PowerPoint on the subject. But simple direct questions – deserve simple direct answers.
And herein lies the problem. No one gets the question because they don’t see the question. Look at the question I asked.
What I asked there was pretty simple. Why do we expect group "A" to have to learn skills that group "B" has, but we don’t expect group "B" to have to learn skills that group "A" has? It’s pretty binary.
Group "B" doesn’t need those skills, or Group "B" cannot receive those skills (for whatever reason) … or … and this is, if you really get down to the brass tacks of the majority of answers we’ve received and remove the double speak in them… Group "B" has the power and Group "B" doesn’t think these skills are important. (In all fairness ranking behind this response is that Group "B" isn’t smart enough or is not willing to put in the effort to obtain such skills.) Now, I don’t want this to open into a war between tech managers and non-technical managers, but that is in essence the responses I am receiving so I’m going to go with those as a legitimate response.
So – if we can’t answer a binary question because we’re uncomfortable with the response we’re forced to give on it we have a problem. The problem in this case is caused by at least at some level, fear. Fear by non-technical managers they may actually have to learn these skills or at least enough of them to understand the skill group. Fear by others of their group that someone may perceive their role as not as essential as say, technical managers with those skills. So the need creeps in when answering this question – to instead of providing a direct response, an honest response to justify the response before it’s given.
I say this because you don’t need to explain a response if it’s obvious to everyone. You feel the need to point to the side issues, or the external factors that impact the response when a simple, "I don’t want to." will do.
And that’s the lesson for the month… if you have a direct question. Answer it with a direct answer. If there are repercussions from the directness of the answer they are far better than the resulting chaos of miscommunication. Because that’s what we get when 50 people feel the need to explain something that’s obvious. So – one more time so you’ll remember… if you have a question that can be answered with a simple straight and direct answer… answer it that way.