Yes, Managing Oneself is a small book!

Managing Oneself: Small Book, Big Message

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A fellow once told me part of the secret to his success.  He said “know yourself, then you can know others.”  The sad part is that it took me several years after hearing this to even begin to understand what he meant.  My learning process was probably helped along by a string of bad decisions, but that is a story for another time.

I was reminded of the above quote, when a friend of mine recently suggested that I read a book called “Managing Oneself” by none other than management legend Peter Drucker.  When we talk about people that have contributed major ideas to modern management practice (meant without sarcasm), it is hard to imagine a bigger player than Drucker.

Anyway, this particular friend of mine is a very sharp thinker, so I took the recommendation to heart, reached deep into my pockets, and spent US $5.06 purchasing the book on Amazon.  I eagerly awaited delivery, wondering what useful observations Drucker might have for the software engineering crowd.  I was pleasantly surprised!

Managing Oneself Concepts

The first thing I noticed about the book is that it was…..small.  Yes, it is a short read, but I’m talking about physical size, as you can see from the picture.  It’s a humble little thing at 55 pages, making my own book (which is also rather short) look like an epic tome in comparison.

But the contents more than make up for it.

Drucker writes some prescriptive instruction that any person in a technical capacity should be able to appreciate.

Understanding Your Strengths

Drucker frames much of the discussion around understanding yourself and how you function best.  In order to understand your strengths, he prescribes feedback analysis, a process in which you compare expected versus actual results from your own decision making.  The idea is to examine the difference between actual and expected results in your decisions.  Then, over a period of years, use that information to determine your own areas of competence, and areas where negative habits, arrogance, or incompetence are at work.  There are a couple big lessons to be learned here.

The first lesson is about the use of feedback.  Very few people, including technical folk, monitor their own behavior, or are even introspective enough to consider it.  By taking the action to capture expectations and compare results, Drucker is suggesting a tangible self-analysis technique here.  I am personally looking forward to trying it out.

The second lesson is about strengths versus weaknesses.  Drucker is very direct about it: “Energy, resources, and time should go instead to making a competent person into a star performer.”  The assertion that one should not spend much time trying to bring one’s own incompetence to even the mediocre level is fascinating in itself.  I’m not sure I completely buy this argument in all cases, but I believe the point Drucker intended was around orienting one’s work along the lines of known strong competency.  To some degree, this aligns with my own experience.  I found early on that I was not very good at digital signal processing; I quickly moved away from that area, and to this day I do not even attempt to take roles in that domain, no matter how much it bothers me that I have never been good at it.  Even though I don’t personally enjoy business analysis or project management as much as technical roles, I am fairly good at them – yet I still steer into the technical domain where possible.  So the advice here seems sensible, even if it appears sharply worded at first glance.

Understanding Your Performance

Drucker talks about the value of understanding whether a person is a reader or a listener, and to understand how one learns or consumes information.  Although I found the point very applicable, the perspective seemed a bit dated to me.  There are numerous systems and methods around that could help a person establish some introspective understanding (example: The Kolbe Index, Myers-Briggs, and so on.)

One gem here relates to understanding an audience – when attempting to communicate an idea to a person that consumes information in a textual manner, you might be wasting your time using diagrams, and vice-versa.  I actually encountered this when I worked with a person that could not seem to understand visualizations at all.  So, instead of flogging a dead horse, we ended up deciding to communicate in pseudo-code when we needed to be clear with each other.

Understanding Your Values

By “values,” Drucker refers to the alignment between one’s personal and professional beliefs, and those of organizations within which they may function best.  Extrapolating to the engineering world for example, a perfectionist engineer may have difficulty operating in organizations that deliver short-term functionality with a willing attitude to cut some corners.  Indeed, I experienced this myself when I transitioned from embedded development (extremely high cost of defects) to non-embedded development (very low cost of defects).  I could not believe how much horrible software the business world allows to ship out the door.  However, eventually (perhaps to the chagrin of my younger self) I learned how to deal with it.

Again, the advice here is salient: the better you understand your own value system, the greater your ability to choose which organizations might be better suited to you.

Understanding Your Contribution

Drucker talks about making the scope of ones contribution into a conscious decision.  He talks about success and failure in knowledge work, and has some keen insight that applies to any modern craft.  The part that struck me the most was Drucker’s point about realizing that others have their own way of working and that we should fully appreciate that, so long as their contributions are articulated and aligned with the business.  Imagine if everyone on your team had an open discussion on these points:

“This is what I am good at.  This is how I work.  These are my values. This is the contribution I plan to concentrate on and the results I should be expected to deliver.”

I think this would make for some very interesting team-building conversation, and the team might learn a few new things about each other as well.

Summary

At just over $5, this book is a steal!  There is wisdom here based on serious experience.  It could be useful for anyone involved in knowledge work.

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