Good People Management Is Invisible

June 13, 20222 minutes to read

The planet Neptune is 4.3 billion — billion, with a B — kilometers away from Earth. It’s so far away that it is the only planet in our solar system not visible to the naked eye. So, if we can’t see it, how did we even know it was there? Who thought to even look for it? How would you think to look for another planet somewhere across the entire sky?

Well... Neptune’s presence was inferred before it was discovered. Astronomers found it because of the effect it had on OTHER planets.

After the discovery of Uranus in 1781, astronomers noticed that the planet was being pulled slightly out of its normal orbit. It wasn’t where it was "supposed" to be. John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier used mathematics to predict that the gravity from another massive celestial body located beyond Uranus was affecting it. They figured out not only where that mystery planet was, but also how much mass it had. 50 years later, an astronomer named Johann Gottfried Galle decided to search for the predicted planet based on the effect on Uranus and finally observed Neptune for the first time in 1846.

Our Neighborhood

Good Design Management is invisible like the pull of gravity.

It can’t be observed directly, only its impact on others. Managers do produce artifacts like performance reviews, strategy briefs, and team documentation… but describing artifacts does not accurately describe the impact a manager has.

The real work of a design manager is altering the orbit of their team. The evidence of good management can be most easily detected through inference — by the behavior of other people. It can be seen in designers leveling up to produce better work at a greater scale than they’ve ever done, in the cross-functional collaboration built on working agreements, and in the growth of the team thanks to the backroom negotiations for headcount and budget.

Just like the presence of Neptune was discovered by the effect it had on Uranus’s orbit, the presence of good management is seen by the effect on the team. Productive, healthy teams with sustained excellence and no drama are the effect of good management, even if it looks like the manager wasn’t doing anything. The continued sustained excellence of a certain manager is usually not a coincidence.