Management Myth #18: I Can Move People Like Chess Pieces


It’s impossible to please everyone in an organization. If someone comes to you with a reasonable-sounding request, such as to move a tester or a developer to a project, you need to examine whether the request is actually so reasonable. Management is not about being nice to everyone all the time. Much of management is about saying no when you have to. Johanna Rothman gives you some advice.

“Sally, I need you to stop testing on this project and move over to Dan’s project.”

“Are you serious, Ben? I just got here a month ago. I just started to learn what’s going on. I finally have the trust of the team. I haven’t worked with these guys before. I found a nice, juicy bug last week and proved my value to the team. Why would you ask me to move now?”

“I need to staff Dan’s project with testers and you are my only available tester.”

“I’m not available! What are you going to do in a month? Move me back here? Heck no, I won’t go. No.”

Sally thought for a few seconds.

“Wait a minute. You’re always going on about the project portfolio. So, which project is more important? This one or Dan’s project?”

Ben tapped his pen. “Well, this one. But Dan really wants a tester, and you are so good, I wanted to put someone on his project.”

Sally brightened and said, “OK, this is easy. Just tell him you don’t have anyone. I’m your most senior tester, and I can tell you that you don’t have anyone.

“Let’s review the project portfolio and where everyone is assigned. It’s right there on the wall. Everyone is assigned for the next two months, the next four iterations. Are you managers going to change the project portfolio before then?”

Ben sighed and said, “No, we aren’t.”

“Well then, what’s the problem? You just tell Dan no. That’s not so hard, is it?”

“Well, it is. I hate to disappoint people.”

“Ah, that’s the problem,” Sally said. “You want to be a nice guy. Well, tough. You’re a manager now. You don’t get to be a nice guy all the time. You have to take a stand. You negotiate with people at the project portfolio meeting, right?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And you go back and forth and horse-trade, right? You make the tough decisions about which projects are most important, right? You decide which projects to staff and not staff, right?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And did you tell Dan at the most recent project portfolio meeting that you didn’t have any testers?”

“Yes, I did.”

“So, why is he bugging you now? Did he think you magically conjured testers out of thin air? Now, that would be a good trick.”

“Well, I think he was hoping my priorities would have changed.”

“Have they?”

“No. They follow the corporate project portfolio.”

“Well, tell Dan to go pound sand. Nicely, of course. Tell him no.”

“But he needs testers.”

“Of course he does. He has developers who will have to take the place of testers. Or he shouldn’t have started the project. But that’s not your problem. Did you explain to everyone what would happen if they started a project without testers?”

“Of course I did!”

“So Dan only has himself to blame.

“Your job as a manager is to protect us from moving around like chess pieces. You and I have had this conversation before. You know that it takes awhile for people to build solution-space domain expertise. If we get pulled off a project and put on another one, we can’t become a part of the project team. We don’t learn the product adequately. It doesn’t matter if we’re testers or developers or business analysts—if we don’t know the risks, the idiosyncrasies of the people, or the product, we can’t be successful.

“So, what are you going to do, Ben?”

“I’m going to tell Dan no. But I’m not going to tell him to pound sand—this is why I’m the manager and you’re the tester, Sally. I have a few more skills in being polite.” Ben smiled.

Sally laughed and said, “Go for it. I’ll go back to testing now and see what other evil bugs I can find.”

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