Managing knowledge workers Featured

8:00pm EDT July 30, 2006
When managing your IT department, you can throw out every book you’ve read about leadership models, methods and theories. Traditional approaches to management simply do not work with “techies” who are very smart, very creative, and notoriously resistant to being managed. Power, control, or surprisingly, even perks like recognition or bonuses do not work well. In fact, they can have a negative effect.

“Techies are motivated by opportunities to creatively solve problems,” says Joel Adams, CEO and founder of Devon Consulting, a professional staffing firm serving the IT and clinical trial industries. “Since technical knowledge is in short supply, money and employment cannot be the background source of power for the manager, and the manager needs to change the way he or she relates to the worker.”

Smart Business spoke with Adams on how to motivate IT workers, and how managers can adapt their leadership styles to best motivate the unique working style of the “techie.”


Explain how managing techies is different than managing other workers.
Despite the fact that techies don’t like to be stereotyped, they really do have many characteristics in common. Managers need to realize that this is an independent, cerebral and creative group of people who are adverse to any displays of power or micromanagement used to control them.

IT workers are problem solvers and they are logical; they value smarts over emotions. That is why Mr. Spock became an icon for them. They can also be very black-and-white and not allow for the possibility of gray.

They also are different in that, unlike most workers, techies know how to do a job that their bosses don’t. That, in combination with the fact that there is a shortage of IT workers, totally shifts the basis of power.


How can managers effectively lead their IT workers?
Managing any group is complex, so there isn’t a cookbook for techies. But let’s start with some concepts; techies don’t suffer fools easily, they want to work on teams with other people they consider smart and they want to create great work. Think of the Manhattan Project or successfully getting Apollo 13 back to Earth. Those were great team-techie projects.

What managers can do is give techies an important project and then facilitate the work process. Many techies are short on communication skills, and helping them with this is something managers can do by creating the right process to accomplish the project. For example, managers can insist that the project team meet every day so that everyone stays informed. A manager can also suggest trying something new to improve the process of a project, if the project is going off target.

It is the techie’s job to do the work. It is the manager’s job to set up the process for them and help them improve the process over time.

It’s also important to break big projects up into manageable bites. It is difficult to stay motivated on a six-month project, but easier if the team can see weekly or monthly successes.


What motivates techies?
Working on really cool problems; creating nifty, sometimes elegantly simple solutions to problems; working with other really smart technical people they admire and can learn from; having enough autonomy to work in their own way.

Techies value democracy and meritocracy. If they have to do something that doesn’t make sense because the ‘boss tells them to do it,’ a techie will balk. They respond to reason and logic. If a technical worker understands why a project is necessary - even critical — for the business, then he or she may be eager to figure out a solution to the problem.


What are some typical management strategies that backfire when used in trying to manage IT workers?
1) Employee of the Month. Techies usually work in teams and need recognition and respect from their team members. And doing good technical work can be intrinsically rewarding. Individual recognition from outside the team can really backfire.

2) Motivational seminars. Techies need quiet time to think, not pep rallies.

3) Competitions or contests within the work environment. These may work wonders in a sales department, but are demoralizing for techies.

4) Working overtime. IT workers are knowledge workers. Remember you are not paying for how much they produce but for how smart and clever they are in solving a problem. Techies solve more problems on the drive home than in sitting in the office. The problem is that techies, when working on a problem, may want to work on the problem until they drop. It is the manager’s job to force them to take a rest.


JOEL ADAMS is the CEO and founder of Devon Consulting (, a professional staffing firm serving the IT and clinical trial industries. Reach Adams at (610) 964-5703 or