Why Wearing Two Hats Is A Bad Idea

November 19, 2013

Agile, Leadership, Project Management

Mural of the two faces of the Roman god Janus

Photo credit: Abode of Chaos / Foter.com / CC BY

In many companies and industries there has been a trend to combine “management” roles in an effort to reduce costs or improve efficiency. Personally, I first noticed this trend with combining project management and functional management roles. The reasoning is that any competent manager should be able to handle the project management duties for their team. As with all management or leadership topics, “it depends” best describes whether that model works.

Since I prefer to lead with the positive, there are some situations  where the model of combining the roles works well:

  • Team is small. The Scrum guideline of 7 +/- 2 works well. It could go higher if the product/project complexity is low.
  • Product/project is small and there are few, if any, dependencies between teams.
  • The manager has adequate talent and interest in both roles.
  • The team members knows their roles and are reasonably autonomous.

In these cases, the Project/Functional Manager needs to provide some organization and guidance with respect to both the product/project and the professional skills of the team. In small-scale, it is possible to give both roles the skills and attention they need.

On the flip side, combining the roles does not work in any combination of these situations:

  • Team is large.
  • Project/Product is complex and requires multiple teams with many dependencies between the teams.
  • The manager clearly has talent and/or interest that favours one or neither of the roles.
  • The team members’ roles are ambiguous or have several junior members.
  • The team is not autonomous.
  • Change influencers need constant attention.

In these cases, trying to do both roles means one or both are being done poorly due to the manager splitting attention. Functional managers are needed to coach the team and guide their professional development while the Project Manager ensures the dependencies/roadblocks are resolved and the project/product is delivered. The more pressure there is from change influencers (external clients or internal stakeholders), the more there is a need to give them dedicated attention. That is why Scrum has the roles of Product Owner and ScrumMaster, where the former focusses on the change influencers, while the other focusses on the team.

Additionally, when the scope and team is sufficiently large and/or complex, the manager needs particular skills to do each of the roles. Project Management is a “technical” management role where scheduling, process, organization and measurement skills are needed. Strong people management skills are needed, but they complement the technical skills. For functional managers, the focus is on people management skills – coaching team members, emotional intelligence, facilitation, mediation, customer service. Technical management skills are still needed, but they complement the people management skills.

Both from my own experience, in a variety of models of both roles, and from watching my peers, I’ve seen more cases of doing both roles poorly rather than focussing and doing one role well. In addition, the people in these roles may only have the talent and/or interest in one (or neither) of those roles so they wind up completely failing in their area of weakness or lack of interest. For the sake of our projects, our teams and our clients, we need to do a better job of giving them the attention they deserve.

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

View all posts by Liza Wood

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2 Comments on “Why Wearing Two Hats Is A Bad Idea”

  1. carlbruiners Says:

    My golden rule of thumb is that you can wear two hats, as long as one hat doesn’t validate the other. If you wear multiple hats that validate each other you are jeopardising your role integrity.


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