Management (done right)

What do you do with a pianist who plays badly?

You give him two sticks and make him the drummer.

What do you do with a drummer who plays badly?

You take away one stick and make him a conductor.

If you have a bit of background in music (like i do) you might have heard some version of this joke. It’s actually kind of a running gag in the music industry, particularly in orchestras. As you might already know, orchestras are basically a bunch of people with different kinds of instruments each playing their part that combines into a single harmonious music. As an audience, that is what we hear. But visually, there is one person that often takes centre stage. That is the conductor, the person with a stick, waving weird gestures the whole time. If we don’t know any better, we might wonder, “what is that person doing? he (or she) is not playing anything, he just wave and point the stick around”.

Someone might try to explain, “well, you see, the conductor is responsible for guiding the orchestra, telling them which part to play, how hard , etc”, and that might seem plausible, until you consider the fact that during performance, you will notice that the players in the orchestra rarely look at the conductor. They are mostly focused on the sheet music in front of them. So you might wonder even further, “if that’s the case, then what’s the point of a conductor?”

Whether we realise it or not, i think there’s a similar running gag in our workplace. It’s like all of the people who work are divided into two major groups. The specialists aka the technicians and the generalists aka the managers. The technicians are those who have specific skills in their job, the electricians, the designers, the software engineers, the architect, the surgeons, and so on. The managers on the other hand, are people who don’t have any specialised skill, but just a mixture of a little bit of everything. In organisations, their role usually is to take care of the specialists: taking care of their payroll, taking care of their administrations, taking care of the their to-do lists and so on. The managers would argue that they specialise in ‘managing’, to which the technicians would usually scoff and say, “yeah, right. As if we can’t do that ourselves”.

I’m exaggerating of course, the reality is a bit more complex than that. The growing trend nowadays is for an overlap between the responsibilities of the technicians and the managers. And more and more companies these days require their managers to come from technicians background (please note when i say ‘technicians’ it refer to whatever technical skill needed for the main operation of the business). But the main point still stands, there’s a perception that the role of management is at best replaceable and at worst unneeded. Is that perception correct, though? Before we go to that, let’s revisit our friends back at the orchestra.

While it’s true that during live concerts the players can, in theory, perform without the help of the conductor, that doesn’t mean the conductor does not have any use at all. The problem is again in the visuals. We only see the conductors during live performance. We don’t get to see the moment when the conductors are really performing their role: the rehearsals.

It is during rehearsal that the conductor help the orchestra: explaining to the orchestra his/her interpretation of the piece they’re about to play, what kind of sound to produce, how to play it, when should they go a bit louder, when should they pause and so on. The orchestra can manage to perform concerts without really relying on the conductor only because the conductor had helped the orchestra ingrained the piece down to the last minute details. And these kinds of minute details require repetitions to get right; lots of repetitions.

On average, to perform a single piece of music with, let’s say 10 minutes in duration, the orchestra would need to practice that piece at least 3 times the original piece’s duration. The number could go even more extreme for top world-class performances. For example, in order to perform the first USA performance of Alban Berg’s 3 hour long opera, Wozzeck in 1936, the orchestra had to rehearse 200 times. That’s already 600 hours of practice.

And who’s in charge of the quality of the rehearsals? That’s right, the conductor. Without the help and guidance of a conductor, the orchestra would be drowned in chaos and confusion. It’s very difficult for a group of people to coordinate their actions without any guidance and clear communications. If you’ve played the game ‘telephone’ you know exactly what i mean.

Based on what we’ve discussed before, businesses are not that much different from an orchestra. Businesses are basically a bunch of people (except when it’s a one person business) doing different things that combines into a product to be delivered to the customer. When we as a customer take a product, we might attribute the quality of the product to the design team of the company, or perhaps the software engineer that wrote the application.

And to some extent we are right, but we also can’t ignore the role of the conductor of the product: the product managers. They are the ones who do the ‘management’ that makes the product possible. Seen in this light, management is not something to scoff at or placed as a second-class citizen compared to the technicians. Management is an absolutely essential role in any business, period.

When management is done right, we get to see and experience great products. But we don’t necessarily see the ‘management’ side. That’s all done behind the screen.

But the joke i told you earlier wouldn’t exist if all conductors do their management job right.

That joke exist because just like there is a thing called good management, there is also bad management. And that is the topic for next story.

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Handy Irawan

An Indonesian who writes about product management, business, and stuff.