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I have recently moved into a new team (both new to me, and new to the organization). My new manager's style is freeform, creative and fast-paced. While I like all those things, we work in an extremely structured large organization that demands a level of discipline a few notches above what he's providing. This causes constant friction with process-driven teams that we need to work with, and chaos within our own team as we generally don't know what we're doing from one day to the next.

I could rant a lot here, but to cut a long story short my diagnosis is that we as a team need structure, from basic hygiene factors like having regular one-to-ones, through to critically important things like defined roles and responsibilities, and a clear statement of vision and objectives.

My attempts so far have elicited something between blank stares and defensiveness. I'm struggling because I'm used to this kind of structure being applied top-down, and I can't figure out how to "manage up".

Forces at work include:

  • My manager gets very little support from his manager
  • My manager has been challenged to demonstrate the value our team is adding (personal existential risk => stress => destructive behaviours)
  • We are focused on a project which also has little structure, few clear requirements and no well-defined roles and responsibilities.

Things I have tried:

  • Booking one-to-one's into his diary
    • They get postponed or minimised and when we do talk, it's about work issues
  • Defining and writing down terms of reference
    • They change each time I ask
  • Talking to co-workers
    • They feel the same way, openly admit to not knowing what they're doing, but are contractors and are fearful of speaking up.
  • Setting out tasks and outcomes that I think are important and will allow us to work with our supplier teams (rather than antagonise them).
    • He disagrees, and instead gives me point-tasks (mostly around producing PowerPoint packs, doubling-down on the next big meeting that he believes will solve everything).

Edit: I researched the question-asking guidelines on this site as I was worried it would come across as a rant, but I do think the question in the title is valid and everything complainy in the question is just context.

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    Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig... If he wants to change, ask him how you can help him. If he doesn't, "managing upward" is a very difficult process. – keshlam Mar 20 '15 at 22:23
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    It could be that your team really does exist in an ill-defined space. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that but highly process oriented folks won't like working there. For other people, the only thing worse than not knowing what you're going to from one day to the next, is doing the same thing from one day to the next. In other words, maybe that's just the nature of your team's work and you're proposing to fix something that isn't broken? – teego1967 Mar 21 '15 at 17:31
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Different people need different levels of structure. Some people find structure stifling. Others find it liberating.

Structure and routine have benefits, even for "free form creative types". Structure and routine allows you to get recurring jobs done without thinking about it, thus saving your cognitive ability for the hard problems.

With a boss like this, you have to introduce structure little by little. Start with one goal, and one routine. Do it well, and report on each every week to your entire team. Your boss and team will learn to count on it, and that will save them some thinking. Get feedback from your boss to see if he agrees with the goal when you set it, and to see if he found that your goal completion added value to the team. (Over time, those meetings could morph into the one-on-ones. One-on-ones are a big waste of time if there is no perceived value to that routine).

I did this a few years ago when I joined a floundering team. I introduced Agile methods, by setting a couple of achievable goals for myself every week on Monday, and demonstrating working software on Friday. That led to measurable progress. And that led to Mondays being used for the whole team to set reasonable goals for Friday's demo. That routine of goal-setting and demos helped the big boss see progress regularly, and that left him happier and the team less frustrated.

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You've identified your manager's style ( freeform, creative and fast-paced. ), but you haven't found out what he's trying to get done. He has a million things to think about and try to accomplish with the available resources and time. Everything isn't going to get done. The manager has to perform triage.

Observe on a daily basis to find out what he is doing and that will tell you what is important. You've discovered that trying to confront him with your list of problems isn't producing any results. Once you've identified what is important (and that will take a lot of time and you really need to be listening), then you may be able to offer potential solutions, focus your work and help out where you can.

You are not going to get all the information to determine if any of your boss's decisions are logical, correct, beneficial etc. If his boss wants those fax cover sheets on the TPS reports, you better figure-out a way to make it happen. Otherwise, you're just part of the problem. As you gain more experience and influence, you may then be in a position to stop the nonsense.

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  • Could you elaborate how you "find out what he is doing" and what's important from the (seemingly?) erratic behaviour of a (seemingly?) chaotic manager? From the question I got the impression that the OP thinks that the manager doesn't know himself what he's doing. So what should the OP look out for? – AllTheKingsHorses Sep 21 '16 at 10:28
  • @SurprisedEuropean - I think it's more of what everyone is doing and the things they'll tell you to not do. That usually reflects the desires of the person in charge. – user8365 Sep 29 '16 at 18:13

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