Local Optimization

Originally Published as a Blog Entry, June 15, 2009


Managers at all levels tend to focus their attention on their own organizations. This makes sense. After all, a team manager is largely responsible for the productivity, output, staff development, and morale of their staff. It is the manager who is scrutinized if his or her team misses commitments – be they feature, quality, or schedule.

Plus, remember the essay on groups. Managers are also primates. They naturally assume the role of the alpha group member.

Still, there is great risk to the long term health of the organization when managers focus too much on their individual areas of responsibility. The best senior managers will reinforce the global view, the organizational view. Why is this important?

Senior managers must balance the natural tendencies of subordinates to optimize things to ensure local success.

Here are some possible artifacts of local optimization. Hopefully, you can see that these behaviors must be balanced by a strong advocate for the needs of the larger organization:

• Each manager is likely to try to interpret the schedule in such a way as to ensure that his or her team will meet its deliverables. Managers are likely to try to squeeze upstream schedules to get their dependencies delivered sooner. Managers are also likely to squeeze downstream schedules by padding their estimates.

• Specifications will be interpreted in such a way as to externalize accountability. Each manager will be very forthcoming with lists of dependencies on other teams. Those same managers will tend to soft-pedal their responsibility to deliver critical system components to other teams.

• Component interfaces will remain in flux. This causes change to ripple “downstream” through the system. The teams with the greatest number of true external dependencies, say localization or documentation or SQA, will see the amount of time left for them to do their work erode as end dates are enforced by executive decree while interfaces continue to change.

There are other examples, but you probably get the idea.

You should know that beyond its obvious implications for system integration, quality, and customer satisfaction, this tendency towards local optimization, if unchecked will weaken you as a senior manager. That’s right. If you do not enforce commitments where necessary, your staff members will see you as weak and ineffective.

Those at the start of the dependency chain will make a habit of ignoring your statements on schedule commitment. They will habitually stabilize interfaces and upstream components late and this will frustrate those dependent on them. This visibly undermines your authority.

Similarly, those who have upstream dependencies may also decide that you are weak. They may also view your lack of action as evidence that you “favor the upstream teams” or (perhaps worst of all) that you either don’t care or don’t understand what’s going on.

And of course the overall organization – the corporation whose success you are charged to foster – will suffer.

To counter this, you must visibly and repeatedly emphasize the global nature of responsibility. You must educate your staff members so that they understand their responsibility to the system. Explain the concept of Systems Thinking to them. Show them examples of how they and their teams are really operating within a product development ecosystem. Be patient and ask a lot of questions to make sure that you hear what they have to say.

But in the end, you must hold your staff members accountable for the needs of not merely their teams but also the needs of the organization. This may well mean that you’ll have to replace one or more of your staff. While this can be painful, the alternative (inaction) is not viable for your company or for your own career

© Michael C. Glaviano 2009 - 2016