Challenges of Managing Technical Professionals
Getting highly intelligent and creative people to do their work within the confines of business realities
Challenges technical managers face
As a manager of technical professionals, you’ll be dealing with many challenges relating to the way you interact with your staff. While previously you have been concerned with getting the job done, you might now in be a position in which you must provide leadership.
Sometimes this involves getting highly intelligent and creative people to do their work within the confines of business realities, such as budgets, time frames, and company standards — even when they disagree with these.
The Radio Corporation of America, or RCA, provides an example of this kind of situation and what can happen if it’s not managed well. In the 1960s, RCA created the Spectra 70 computer series in an attempt to challenge IBM’s hold on the computer market.
The series failed for one main reason — managers didn’t align the work of engineers, who created and designed the computers, with the company’s vision and standards.
The result was a technically superior product, but one that couldn’t compete. It was too expensive and, contrary to management’s initial objectives for it, couldn’t run popular IBM software without costly modifications.
Along with the challenge of making sure the technical professionals who work for you know the goals of the organization, you may encounter four other types of challenges:
- disparagement of the management function,
- a lack of communication and teamwork, making it difficult to synchronize team members’ efforts,
- the development of conflicts with organizational goals, and
- perfectionism and disagreement with company standards.
Disparagement of management — As experts in their fields, most technical professionals are used to working independently, with little direct supervision. This can result in technical professionals considering the involvement of management in their work as unnecessary or irrelevant.
Lack of communication and teamwork — Technical professionals are used to working independently and taking responsibility for their own efforts. This can result in a lack of communication and teamwork, making it difficult to synchronize the efforts of individuals in a group.
Conflict with organizational goals — Technical professionals tend to be self-driven and to set their own professional goals. It’s common for these goals to conflict with organizational goals. So a particular challenge for a technical manager is aligning team members’ efforts with company objectives.
Disagreement with company standards — Technical professionals may tend to be perfectionists. Sometimes this can lead to disagreement with company standards.
For example, speed may be more important than quality from a business perspective because success depends on getting a product to market ahead of competitors or on meeting an important client’s deadline. But technical professionals may resist letting go of work until it meets their personal high standards.
Disparagement and communication
Technical professionals have spent many years training in their specific fields and are used to working fairly independently.
This may lead them to be disparaging of the management function — they may think of it as unnecessary or even as a hindrance to their work. This applies especially when managers don’t have the same level of training and expertise in a technical field as the technical professionals they manage.
For example, a software programmer may find herself working with a manager who knows little about programming. If she feels the manager is not qualified to supervise her work, she may disregard his deadlines and think of them as not realistic or carefully considered.
To demonstrate the relevance of your role as a manager, you should help to identify and remove obstacles to the peak performance of your employees.
For example, you might provide team members with specific resources they need to do their work more efficiently. You could give them access to useful contacts, like other managers or suppliers, or provide team members with extra training that will help them develop their skills further. It also helps to reward exceptional performance. All of these actions will demonstrate that they really do need and benefit from a good manager.
The tendency of technical professionals to want to work autonomously can lead to a lack of communication and teamwork. To overcome this, you should create a work environment that fosters communication and sharing — with you and among team members. For instance, schedule regular meetings in which team members can report on progress, discuss concerns, or brainstorm ideas and solutions.
In addition, to encourage technical professionals on your team to work together, avoid creating a rigid hierarchy. For example, steer clear of perks that emphasize differences in status, and avoid using terms such as “subordinate.” Instead, use more team-oriented terms, such as “associate,” “staff member,” or “professional.”
Dealing with conflicts and perfectionism
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing that many technical professionals prefer to work independently. However, if companies want to keep technical professionals motivated and satisfied by giving them the autonomy they seek, companies need to establish clear objectives. Objectives provide technical professionals with the structure in which they can work independently and minimize potential conflicts relating to organizational goals.
Technical professionals may want to work on something they feel is more stimulating and exciting than a project their department needs to focus on.
This is where the risk of conflict with organizational goals can arise. And conflicts can also occur when technical professionals are more focused on professional status within their technical discipline than on organizational goals.
The most appropriate strategy for dealing with conflicts with organizational goals is to set clear guidelines and to make use of peer reviews.
For example, in the case of a conflict regarding the release of proprietary information, it would be appropriate to explain the company’s objectives and procedures relating to the release of such information.
If the company has done this and there’s still a risk of information being released, the company may ask peers of the technical professional to review and adjudicate any disagreements that arise.
If a company doesn’t already have standard guidelines governing the protection of proprietary information, it will have to establish these and communicate them clearly to all technical professionals. The company should get input and feedback from all affected employees when developing these guidelines. Once approved, it’s in the organization’s best interests to ask all technical professionals to read and then sign the guidelines.
Another challenge that may arise when managing a team of technical professionals is perfectionism, which can lead to disagreement about established company standards.
This can arise because of a person’s commitment to achieving a certain standard. All managers want their employees to do the best jobs they can, but when this commitment is taken to an extreme, it can prevent progress. The theoretical ideals eventually need to give way to what’s practical and possible.
To respond effectively to perfectionism and disagreements with company standards, managers should ensure there’s open communication about mutual expectations.
Talking about what each side expects can uncover any hidden conflicts, which can then be resolved. This can take the form of round table discussions with all technical professionals in your team or private one-on-one talks with particular individuals.
As a manager of technical professionals, you need to respond appropriately to a variety of challenges. These may include disparagement of the management function, lack of communication and team work, perfectionism, conflict with organizational goals, and disagreement with company standards.
Examples of strategies for overcoming these challenges are demonstrating the relevance of the management function, providing more opportunities for communication among team members, setting clear guidelines, making use of peer reviews, and discussing mutual expectations.