Short-Handed Management Model – Five Practices that Make it Work

Good management at Atomic is putting people in the right context for success and getting out of their way. In other words, we hire trustworthy people, then trust them.

At lot goes into that simple statement.

Atomic Object's Grand Rapids Managing Partner Team

Our Management Model

At Atomic, we have strong leadership, but we are short handed when it comes to traditional management. Our short-handed management model requires us to hire the right people, foster the right culture, put a solid process into place, and provide positive support structures.

This management model is a feature, not a bug. It pushes leaders to trust individuals and teams, and it keeps our operational costs low.

I manage our Grand Rapids office with my partner Shawn Crowley. The two of us are responsible for sales, clients, and people in Grand Rapids. Between the two of us, we have 32 (and growing) direct reports. We do a good job with a few formal management practices. We strive to have quarterly one-on-ones with everyone; we conduct yearly compensation reviews; we recently implemented a mid-year reflection focused around past success and growth.

These practices are valuable, but they aren’t enough to sustain a large team of knowledge workers. The combination of our 16:1 direct report ratio and other responsibilities doesn’t allow us enough time to work closely with all Atoms.

Our Five Management Practices

Luckily for us, the role of management at Atomic is shared and built into our culture. The following five practices enable our short-handed management model to work. If we get lazy on any of these practices, we’ll have some serious managerial debt on our hands:

1. Hire the right people

People are the most important element. Like all companies, we need our Atoms to be smart, ethical, and team players. Because we’re consultants, we also need Atoms to be curious about a wide variety of topics, to be creative problem solvers, and most importantly, to be self-starters who don’t require excessive handholding. When you have the right people, it’s easy to be an exceptional manager.

2. Foster the culture

At Atomic, we have six core values. These values help guide our decisions, and they are behaviors that we expect from everyone. It’s the responsibility of leadership to not only live these values, but more importantly to enable and empower others to live the values. This empowerment creates a team of leaders. Teams of leaders manage one another.

3. Assemble the right teams

When a project is sold, the project team assignment is determined by the office management team. Since we place so much autonomy and responsibility on teams, we need to ensure that each team has the right personalities, expertise, leadership, and experience. Team assignments are some of the most important and influential decisions that the office management team can make. Teams provide a structure for teaching, learning, and ad hoc management.

4. Develop a process to follow

We identify project roles, work within a standard set of project phases, have a common point of view around development practices, leverage a handful of project management tools, and use a standard cadence for key meetings. These best practices create a steady and familiar environment for our team members. The process helps keep team members fed with valuable work to do.

5. Invest in a support structure

The building block of Atomic is the individual Atom. Atoms are supported by teams, teams are supported by geographical offices, and offices are supported by the company. Atomic actively invests in supporting project teams in a few key ways.

Micah Alles, a long-time Atom with a bunch of project experience, meets with all project teams to provide process support and coaching. This support helps share best practices between teams, provide support for tricky situations, and create opportunities for Atoms who are willing to step into a project leadership position for the first time (delivery, design, or development).

Atomic has also implemented the Delivery Lead role. Along with their project responsibilities, Grand Rapids Delivery Leads support each other by meeting weekly to discuss project dynamics.

Management for Growth

Our short-handed management model isn’t ideal for all job candidates. However, for self-starting individuals who are eager to take control of their careers and work, our model creates an ideal setting for growth and job satisfaction.