Managing by Exception

As a techie who grew through the ranks, starting as a programmer to project lead to project manager and then a program manager, I have had no management training as such. It came naturally, the learning happened either by burning one’s own hands or by the guidance of a knowledgeable manager.

Moving from project lead to project manager was relatively seamless. There were a few changes though. The most significant was the focus I had to bring in laying down project specific processes and ensuring compliance. I also became less hands on as far as programming and architecting was concerned. My reliance on metrics increased. Unknowingly, I also carried forward the habit of micro managing the project, keeping an eye on each and every team member and their activities. This included spending time with individual team members at their desks while they worked, sometimes helping them with debugging their programs. An interesting aside was that I realized while one may grow out of the habit of programming, one almost never loses the ability to debug programs. 

This observation came to my help much later. In my role as a program manager, I had to manage multiple projects- often in multiple technologies and across different types of projects.

In one such role I was managing support for about 100 business applications, an identity management application, SAP implementations in ABAP and BW as well as smaller independent projects in JDE Edwards, C++ and so on. It became almost impossible for me to micro manage all these projects. Intuitively, I started devoting more time to project start up, ensuring that the fundamental processes were laid out and the team was committed to follow those, and then getting into project details only when something did not go right.

This was akin to debugging- that is it is sometimes easier to manage what is going wrong rather than keeping a tab on each and every a line of code. In more sophisticanted parlance, it is known as management by exception. Wikipedia defines this as:

a “policy by which management devotes its time to investigating only those situations in which actual results differ significantly from planned results. The idea is that management should spend its valuable time concentrating on the more important items (such as shaping the company’s future strategic course). Attention is given only to material deviations requiring investigation.”

Like any other concept, an over reliance on management by exception can be risky. Handling too many exceptions is not a good sign of the health of the projects either. By concentrating only on exception management, the manager may not be able to invest much time and attention to building processes and grooming talent. The trick is to kill two birds with one stone- that is, while attending to exceptions, the manager has to ensure that he or she identifies the root cause and then endeavors to put checks and balances in the processes to avoid future recurrences.

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2 Responses to Managing by Exception

  1. Elena says:

    Even though I don’t come from the IT background, I also have the “habit of micro managing the project”. It’s a tough one to break for sure. Since I’m new to the PM, could you explain the difference between “management by exception” and “putting out the fires”?

    • bhupinder says:

      “Management by exception” assumes a functional mechanism to be in place which enables measurement- it could be effort, schedule or quality metrics. As long as these metrics are within an acceptable range, the manager does not really get into details.

      “Putting out the fires”, on the other hand, is often the result of totally unforeseen factors. While “fires” may still arise in case of a well managed project, they are often the result of external factors rather than internal, for example, as a result of business decisions impacting the project, environment crashes, loss of key personnel at decisive stages of the project etc.

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