It's a long walk to Mumbai

Aug 04 2006 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

A group of managers were sitting around in a cafeteria the other day. Since I seldom get to sit with the cool kids and I was on my own, I tried to relive my high school days by eavesdropping on the conversation of people way more interesting than myself.

One of the managers was talking about a seminar she'd attended and whether it bore any relation to the real world. The class, led by a Senior Manager, was how managers need to get out of their offices and "manage by walking around".

One of her compatriots immediately sprayed iced tea out his nose.

Once the mess was cleaned up, he explained what was so funny. "First, when do we get our offices back and second- it's a long @#$%ing walk to Mumbai".

While wiping the iced tea off my collar (I mean it really SPRAYED) I got to pondering something I've heard more and more lately from middle managers about how much their world has changed - particularly as it concerns their ability to really get their work done by people they seldom even see and how Senior Managers don't understand the seismic shifts that have occurred in the last couple of years.

Senior managers don't understand the seismic shifts that have occurred in the last couple of years

More and more Middle Managers are feeling that the organizations they work for (or at least Senior Management and HR) don't really understand what day to day work looks like, especially as it relates to managing projects.

There are two challenges in particular that project managers are dealing with on a functional level but haven't really addressed organizationally yet:

  • With all the communication tools available, why is project communication still so poor?
  • How am I supposed to manage projects in a matrix management setup where I don't have direct reporting relationships to the people on my team- and don't even always meet them face to face?

First, most organizations have done a great job of providing communication tools such as E-mail, web conferencing, Instant Messaging and those accursed electronic umbilical cords, the Blackberry and its ilk. More data flies through the ether to land in their laps than ever before, but how much of it is of value?

Many managers today assume that volume and rate of communication will make up for the lack of face-to-face contact. It's just not so. You have to create high quality communication bound by the laws of time, space and dimension.

Surprisingly, most companies do not have an expressed policy on how often, or to which messages, a manager should respond. They've assumed that employees will make calm, reasoned responses based on logic, priority and the demands of project timelines.

Commendable as it is to have faith in your people, what you see are people losing all sense of perspective and responding with Pavlovian slavishness to every "ding" of their inbox. They believe that since they can respond immediately, they must respond immediately and as a result grind to a shaking, drooling halt, paralyzed by the inability to look up from their screens long enough to actually speak to their people or formulate a thoughtful response.

Although most managers know it's not working, they need someone above them to say it's OKAY not to respond at warp speed because they feel if they don't it will reflect badly on them. What a blessing it would be if someone on high would just acknowledge this dilemma and allow them 24 hours to get back with an answer.

Secondly, the way projects are funded creates a challenge most companies don't intend. Virtual teams and matrix management mean project managers are held responsible for timelines and deliverables but have no actual control over the time, budget or performance management of the people on their teams.

As projects involve more people, from more functions, in more locations, the job of getting top performance, meeting deadlines and simply communicating becomes increasingly difficult.

Add to this the fact that in most organizations the project manager is the only person actually dedicated to that project. It's supposed to happen with people working part-time on this project while their salaries and performance reviews are held by someone else.

The assumption, I've heard Senior Managers say, is that these are all grownups with a dedication to the job at hand and a desire to reach win-win outcomes with the overall good of the company in mind.

Yeah, I hope you weren't drinking iced tea on that last one.

It's not that the tools aren't available, and it's not that people don't want to work well together, it's that occasionally Upper Management has to step in and see that it's happening and get actively involved. Nothing makes scarce resources suddenly available quite like someone two levels up asking "How it's going with the ***Project, have we gotten Sharon the help she needs yet?".

Waiting for missed deadlines is non-productive. Project sponsors need to be more actively involved, and sooner. They have to set realistic expectations based on how people really work today, and not rely on outdated aphorisms like "management by walking around".

It is indeed a long walk to Mumbai, especially when you don't have access to the corporate jet.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.

Older Comments

Excellent article, copy of link going to my manager this week with letter of resignation.


Wow, Scott. Talk about a strange kind of compliment. Apparently I struck a nerve with this little effort although I never intended to push anyone off the cliff.

Good luck finding a boss that 'gets it'.

Wayne Turmel Glen Ellyn (Chicago), IL