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Looking for the Square Hole December 26, 2009

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
Tags: , , , ,

Each manager should be held accountable for the way they use the resources that have been allocated to their team, and their most important resources are the people in their charge. Unfortunately I’ve seen too many managers work with people as if they’re interchangeable parts, each person equally likely to succeed in a given role. Of course that’s just not true. Each person brings a unique combination of skills, talents, and experiences, and managers should use this information to find the right place for each person and thereby optimize the performance of the team.

When I managed a software quality department at Hewlett-Packard I realized that our team needed two different types of quality engineers. Both were necessary to support our business objectives, but the job requirements were clearly different. One was essentially a quality program manager, responsible for defining a quality strategy for a given software program and then managing the execution of that strategy during the development lifecycle. This position required traditional project management skills (including directing the work of 3rd party offshore testers), and frequent cross-functional communication with software development, product marketing, and customer support organizations.

The second type of quality engineer was a domain expert in a specific area of modular functionality defined by our software architecture, contributing to multiple software programs. This person worked most-closely with the architects, system-level designers, and lower-level developers, and required a strong technical background in order to contribute to early validation and defect prevention activities. While basic planning, organization, and communication skills were certainly useful, this job did not require the same level of competence as the quality program manager position. Similarly, the quality program manager benefited from their technical background, but to a lesser degree than their quality engineer counterpart.

Once the roles and responsibilities were defined for these two positions, it was fairly easy to assess the incumbent engineering staff and fill the required slots with people who were more likely to succeed. Matching individual strengths with the available jobs made more sense to me than spending management time trying to coax higher performance from a people who are in the wrong job, at least for them.

I can’t remember if I’ve already made this recommendation, but the book “First, Break All The Rules,” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman (Simon & Schuster, 1999) was a big eye-opener for me, and it still guides my thinking on the subject of management. Here’s how they summarize the insights they gained from their research (page 57):

  • People don’t change that much.
  • Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out.
  • Try to draw out what was left in.
  • That is hard enough.


Managers should stop wasting time trying to change people into something they can never be. They should be looking for the square hole that matches the skills and talents of each individual with the responsibilities that help further the business’s objectives.



1. Ravi - April 6, 2010

right on Tim..my thoughts exactly…and without reading the book you are referencing, the notion of square peg/rond hole is something I experienced first hand and was able to work effectively in situations where assigning tasks complementary of skill sets turned the performance around.

2. Read This: “Management Lessons From Major League Baseball” « Managing in the 2000s - April 27, 2012

[…] “1. Job fit matters as much as ability.” Possibly more so. Smart and resourceful managers know how to put the right person in the right job (see Looking for the Square Hole). […]

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