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26 August 2008

Fractal management

By Andrew Clifford

To manage technology effectively, you need methods that let you manage at different levels of detail at different times and across different subjects.

We tend to think that management should deal with the high-level, and leave technical details to specialists. Although this is generally the case, we should not have too fixed a view.

The world is not divided into "management" and "technical". The world is fractal. Management direction, organisation and control can be useful at every level of detail. But management takes time and costs money. The trick is to achieve the best possible return on management by optimising the level of detail at which management operates.

This means that management needs to work at different levels of detail at different times and across different subjects. Management needs to be able to delve into detail when necessary, if there is an issue or something that needs to be co-ordinated more widely. Even the most technical details, such as firewall configuration, can become management topics, for example after a network attack. Management also needs to be able climb back up out of the detail again, and quickly leave before they get in the way of the detailed work.

Effective managers know this. They know when to leave their staff to get on with the work, when to get into the detail, and when to back off. Navigating multiple levels of detail is an important skill for technology managers.

One of our customers is carrying out a high-level assessment of strategic fit of their systems. They also want to know in more detail how one individual data item is implemented in each, because it is a current issue for them. This is not arbitrary and inconsistent, but the reality of effective management.

There is no right and wrong level of detail for management. In some subjects and at some times, management can deal with high-level summaries; in other subjects and at other times, they need the detail. You need an approach that lets you vary the level of detail to reflect the fractal realities of management. You need to do this in a controlled way to show that management is being responsive and responsible, not inconsistent and meddling.

This has helped me settle an issue that has plagued me for the past few months. We have struggled to find a good name for the method that my company, Metrici, provide. (The method provides an ongoing process to identify and justify improvements in IT.) We now call our method Metrici Extensible System Quality Management. We call it "extensible" because it can extend across different subject areas, across multiple purposes (governance, control, and day-to-day management), and up and down the continuum of detail. It provides a consistent framework that lets you manage at different levels of detail at different times and across different subjects.

Whether you use our methods or not, this is a valuable characteristic to look for in all your management methods. There is not a right and wrong level of detail for managing technology, provided that it is not fixed, and you can flex your management response as you have need.

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