Manager Math

November 4, 2014

Agile, Leadership, Project Management

antique cash register

Have you ever needed to make plans out of nothing? You know the situation: the project is barely defined, no one understands yet what needs to be done, and the team is still working on other projects. Still, you need to come up with a budget and build plans on a foundation of something more than thin air. It’s at this point that managers and the team start to butt heads. Managers want estimates and planning exercises. The team wants to start work. No one wants to spend hours in meetings coming up with estimates that will be proven completely wrong within a couple of weeks. This is where Manager Math comes in.

I was first introduced to Manager Math back when I was a managing a central programming team that did both development and support. As I was trying to reconcile the projected demands from my clients with the financial pressure from the business, my Director gave me a valuable piece of advice: Look at it from a CFO’s point of view. That simple change of perspective completely changed my approach to planning.

My team and I knew that each of the technologies we developed would require different amounts of work. A CFO would not. To a CFO, each of those technologies was simply one item on the list of things we did, no different from any of the other items. However, our budget came from two different profit centres. The work we did for one set of clients was more valuable. Once I aligned our technology list with the key clients (the profit centres paying for our work), I could identify three budgets within our budget: one for each profit centre and one that was shared. The shared work benefited both profit centres, so that budget gave us flexibility. If both groups prioritized work on the technologies on the shared list, then we could assign more resources.

Manager Math is all about simplifying the problem – making the “math” as simple as possible and aligning your teams and plans around it. Being able to do that is the foundation of Agile planning:

  • Keep it simple. The detailed tasks and estimates will come later. Figure out the simplest way to approach the project first.
  • Identify your hardest constraint. Usually this comes down to money, but it could also be timeline, specific talent needs, or even office space that is the main constraint for your project. Find the one that is the hardest to move and make that the foundation of your planning. It does not mean it cannot change; it is just the hardest one to change. Pick only one to keep it simple.
  • Understand what is the most valuable to the business. Projects and teams exist to bring value to the business and its clients. Understanding what the business values most about what you and your team are delivering and figuring out how to deliver that quickly needs to be at the foundation of every plan. This is also part of the backlog management process throughout the project.
  • Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize. Use the above three points as your compass for setting priorities. Be persistent. Be clear about the choices that are yours to make. Help the business and your teams be clear with their priorities. As work gets completed or new information is learned, continuously check in on those priorities and re-prioritize as needed.

How would a CFO view your project?

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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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