Today I was trying to explain what I find frustrating about non-engineers in management positions, and I finally have a word I'm happy with: mechanics. I think that what distinguishes good management from bad is an understanding of the mechanics. That is to say, the fundamental behaviour of the rules that govern the domain of the business.

A classic example is the seven perpendicular lines. The sketch is funny because it uses mechanics everyone is familiar with: colour and geometry, which makes the all-too-common ignorance of mechanics comically absurd. But the less-funny reality is that this is a well-recognised management problem. Mostly, I think the blame falls on the idea of the universal manager: since management is management regardless of the problem domain, you can apply the same set of management tools to any problem.

In reality, although there is a subset of people-domain management tools that apply universally, the problem-domain management tools are very different between domains. And any attempt to pave over that with bluster or can-do optimism is bound to fail to the extent that the domain is constrained by its mechanics. You may be able to manage your way through a discussion of bike sheds without understanding their mechanics, but not nuclear reactors.

But even on fairly simple mechanics it seems like business types easily fall over. I've seen cases where the mechanics are so simple you could explain them to a child and see more comprehension than you get from the adult running the business. In these cases I believe it goes further than not knowing mechanics, I think it's not wanting to know mechanics, as if they would somehow sully the theoretical purity of universal management.

Luckily, I've found at least in software an increasing awareness that you need to know how software works to manage software projects, but I'm sure it's still happening elsewhere. Maybe I've just been lucky to not see it as much, or maybe the universal managers have all tranferred their transferrable skills to other industries.

Either way, it's an important point to make: mechanics matter, and if you don't understand them you have no business managing a technical team.