Management Myth 23: You Can Manage Any Number of People as a Manager


In her latest management myth piece, Johanna Rothman writes that your management position, first-line or not, is about building trusting relationships. If you start managing more than nine people, you are in danger of not being able to build those relationships.

"Cindy, I need to add three more people to your team." Patrick, the CTO, leaned in the doorway. He turned, about to walk away.

"Wait a sec. We need to discuss this. You don’t get to drop that bombshell and leave. Why do you want me to hire more people?" Cindy looked concerned.

"No, I don't want you to hire anyone,” Patrick said. “I'm moving them over from Tranh's team. He's not coaching them well. You coach your team well. He's not. I want you to manage them."

"If you give me three more people, I won't be able to coach them properly. I won't have time,” Cindy replied. “You don't want me to make team leads, which I don't understand. I'll have twelve people, which is too many. No. I don't want them. Give them to someone else or let me manage my team the way I want."

Patrick walked in and sat down. ‘What do you mean, 'manage the way you want’? I don't interfere with you."

Cindy snorted. "Sure you do. You have all kinds of rules. I can't have team leads. I must have a minimum of three people to manage. I must write code, no matter how many people I manage or what else I'm doing for you.

“None of your rules makes sense in an agile organization. None of these helps me manage the project portfolio or provide coaching or career development or the kind of feedback that makes sense. They don't help me help the product owners or the program managers. They don't help me work on the architectural decisions for where the product is going—even though I only facilitate those decisions.

“I only have one-on-ones biweekly with my team. I don't have time for more than that. And I don't have time for any more management work I should be doing. You don’t have time to meet with me. You keep canceling our one-on-ones. When you’re free, I’m not.

“And my ‘team’ isn't just one team. It's two cross-functional teams. I work with the testers as well as the developers. I don't know how to coach the BAs that well, so I don't. So, no—no, thank you,” Cindy concluded. “I am up to my eyeballs. I can't manage more people without relaxing some of your rules. I don’t want to manage any more people. Give them to someone else.”

What Do First-Line Managers Do?
I wish there were a consensus on what first-line managers do. There isn’t even a consensus on the title for these folks. Some first-line managers are managers. Some are called leads. Some code or test if they are functional managers for development or test teams, even in an agile environment.

For some teams, their manager is the way they learn "how to do things here." They have not learned that pairing or a buddy system or swarming or mob programming is just as effective, if not more, than manager-led coaching. Why? Because that's how their manager learned. And their manager, the current director or senior manager, got that promotion because he or she was the most valuable technical person. (Do you see how these myths propagate themselves?)

Filling a first-line manager’s day is not effective. The relationship a person has with his or her first-line manager is the best way to know if that person is happy at work.

And, if a first-line manager is busy doing the work, how can the manager delegate work and responsibility to someone else?

What’s a Reasonable Number of People to Manage?
As always with a juicy question like that, the answer is “It depends.” It depends on how mature the manager is and how mature the team is. If the first-line manager is learning how to be a manager, the manager needs to practice with fewer people. Why? The manager needs to learn how to not interfere. That’s difficult enough with three or four people. It’s close to impossible if a new manager has more people because the temptation to insert yourself into all decisions is impossible to resist.

If you’ve been a manager for a while and you know how to coach people and you’re comfortable being a manager, it’s OK to manage up to eight or nine people. Once you try to manage more than nine people, you start searching for time in your week to meet with people one on one. You have to delegate more to the people on your team. You can do it, but it’s more stressful for you and your team.

To me, more people says that it’s time to look at the configuration of the team and ask if it should look like something else. It’s time to delegate more responsibility to others.

People Want to Learn
I meet many people looking for new jobs, many of them young in their careers. Quite a few say, “I’m ready for more responsibility. I want more challenge. But there’s nowhere to go. My manager won’t let me learn. My manager keeps my under his thumb.”

Maybe one of the problems with managers learning to delegate is that their managers think they must manage a gazillion people and still maintain their technical skills.

Whether you manage three people or thirty-three people, remember this: People deserve a chance to grow and learn. One of your jobs as a manager is to facilitate their learning.

You Are Not the Sole Source of Knowledge
Many first-line managers see themselves as the expert, as the sole source of knowledge for their group. You may have started as the expert. However, as soon as you become a manager, you want to start moving out of that expert’s seat—and you don’t want to move anyone else into it.

Spread the expertise love. Ask people to work together. This is easy on an agile team, where people are likely to pair or swarm on features. If you don’t have an agile team, ask who is interested in acquiring new knowledge. Remember, unless you have a toxic environment, people want to learn new skills. If no one wants to learn what you know, that is information for you. Maybe your expertise is outdated, or the workplace is hostile, or people are already looking for other jobs. Use your one-on-ones to determine what’s going on.

Build Trusting Relationships With Your Team
Your management position, first-line or not, is about building trusting relationships. If you start managing more than nine people, you are in danger of not being able to build those relationships.

While this affects first-line managers more than it affects more senior managers, it’s a management problem. It requires problem solving and leadership. And that’s what management is for, right?

Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.