Mackerel Management

The only time I’ve ever been fishing is one trip in my early teens to fish for mackerel. Apparently this is the perfect beginner fishing trip because mackerel are really easy to catch. I remember staring in amazement as dangling a shiny lure above the water caused hordes of fish to leap into the boat. You didn’t need to hook them! I went from a total novice to catching 20 pounds of fish in one afternoon. Unfortunately, that meant eating mackerel out of my mom’s freezer for two months that Summer.

In the software world, it’s not uncommon to be dealing with management that behaves much like mackerel. Let’s say you’ve been charged with coming up with some grand plan for a new product or changes to an existing one. (Yes, I know this is very anti lean startup, but mackerel haven’t caught up with that yet) You might come up with a ‘road map’ having all sorts of features to be deployed upon some imaginary timeline.

The thing is, if you are working for mackerel, you have to understand that each option or feature is a shiny lure. When presented with a number of options, mackerel will jump on every single one. They are all sparkling, attractive, and worth risking a slow, gasping death aboard the deck of a fishing vessel for.

The good thing is, mackerel are easily distracted. When managing mackerel, your job is to keep them hopping on lures and thinking they are making real decisions while you enable the people who actually do stuff to build and launch the product the right way. I’ve seen products ship using this technique. Producers convince the project leader he is in charge, but secretly direct the team to do otherwise. Once the project ships, nobody can really complain. It’s the whole “ask forgiveness later than permission before” thing.

Mackerel management requires two things. The first one is not caring about your employment status. After all, you are directly defying the mackerel and might get canned for such brazen action. Mackerel travel in schools and don’t like to think as individuals. Also, you need the rest of the people on the project to have such disregard for mackerel that they’ll agree to silently ignore management’s requests. If you have this perfect storm of “I don’t give a shit” philosophy you may be able to upwardly manage mackerel.

Of course, if you find yourself in this situation, you might reconsider even trying this and either start up your own thing or get a better job where such absurdity is not necessary. Still, it can be a fun sociological experiment–especially if you don’t care about getting fired.

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