Uplevel your managers with Mini-M support groups
Today, I would like to share a management practice we developed at New Relic. It was one of the best things we did as an engineering organization. The practice is called “Mini-Ms”. I believe it’s as important a practice for managers as code reviews are for engineers.
This post is first of a series:
- In this post, we look at how Mini-Ms work and what they are.
- Next, we learn how to implement Mini-Ms.
- Then, we discuss variations you may want to consider.
- Finally, we share a history of Mini-Ms, including where the name came from.
What is a Mini-M?
A Mini-M is a group of managers that meet weekly or biweekly. The meeting is a combination support group and working session. In each session, managers share challenges they face. The other participants offer support and help problem-solve.
Why are Mini-Ms effective?
What is the value in meeting with other managers and talking about your problems? It may not seem like it is worth the time. Yet, many managers claimed Mini-Ms helped them grow more than anything else.
Mini-Ms help you develop skills
There are a few reasons for that. Elaine May describes three reasons:
“Learning to manage is very different from other types of learning (like engineering, for instance). In management, the concepts are simple and the execution is not. I’ve seen this trip up many engineering managers who read a book or attend a class and find the concepts trivial and therefore easy or not very important. Learning management is more of an apprenticeship versus an intellectual pursuit.”
“In a Mini-M, you have many other people to learn from. If you are only learning from a coach, manager, or mentor, their approach may not fit very well for you, but in a Mini-M, you are getting multiple perspectives.”
Teaching clarifies your thinking. When you share your experiences and ideas with other managers, you’re forced to articulate your own practice, and consider it in a critical way.
I have a few more explanations:
- Skills are unevenly distributed. You might be good at running meetings. I might be good at 1-1s. Another participant might be an effective project manager. During a Mini-M, we all share our experience with each other. \
Imagine having to fill in those skills some other way. You would have to study each of those topics. Or learn each of them the hard way. That would be much slower! The diversity of the group allows the group to grow faster.
- Mini-Ms meet you where your skills are. Most alternative methods of learning involve assumptions of where your current skills are. For example, a management course tries to teach you a certain set of concepts or practices. But Mini-Ms allow you to expand your skills from wherever they may be. If I am struggling with how to run a particular meeting, I can immediately add a little to my skills during a single Mini-M session.
This makes the M-team into a combination of a support group and training session for your management team.
Mini-Ms are a source of valuable support
Management is a difficult profession. As hierarchical creatures, being “higher” in the hierarchy separates you from your team members. And other managers are often busy and unavailable.
Because Mini-Ms were largely modeled on support groups, your group can become part of your support network. Even outside of the meetings, you might turn to your fellow managers for help.
Having a Mini-M helped me to build up a mental map of the skills of the managers around me. This was helpful, because I started to understand the skills that I needed to build. When I ran into problems running projects, I felt like I could go to the person I knew was good at it and ask for help. And because we had a relationship from our Mini-M, they were more likely to want to help.
In addition, many companies are distributed nowadays. This can result in less accidental interaction with peers. And it can contribute to isolation. Mini-Ms can be a source of connection with other managers.
Mini-Ms help retain and attract managers
Because managers feel better supported by their peers, they are more likely to stay at the company. Or stay in management. I anticipated that benefit.
What surprised me was that people outside the company seemed to keep hearing about these Mini-M groups. And they would bring it up during interviews and mention it was why they applied in the first place!
Why were they so attracted by Mini-Ms?
- They demonstrated that we took management seriously as a role.
- They showed that we valued developing our people, which was a signal that their job as a manager would be better here.
- They showed we experimented with our organizational practices. And would welcome further innovation.
Mini-Ms help build a management culture
Along with a support group, the other inspiration for Mini-Ms was a conspiracy. The idea was to bring a few managers together, gripe about the problems in the organization, and come up with solutions. Mini-Ms naturally became the graph along which many management practices spread through the organization.
In the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni talks about the importance of managers seeing their “first team” as the management team. Mini-Ms helped develop a community of managers that all were focused on improving their skills and their teams. And many of us felt empowered to address the problems we saw in the organization around us.
How does a Mini-M work?
There have been a lot of variations to the way Mini-Ms have run over the years. What follows is a good way to start Mini-Ms.
The Organizer of the Mini-Ms assigns each manager to a Mini-M. Each Mini-M has five to eight managers. The Organizer sets the expectation that managers attend.
Each group has a Facilitator. They schedule and facilitate meetings. They usually start with a standard meeting format. Here’s an example format:
- Each person brings a topic: something that was challenging from last week, or something they are facing now.
- In an in-person meeting, the Facilitator would go around and ask everyone for their topics and put them on a whiteboard. In a distributed setting, all the participants would add their topics at the same time to a shared doc.
- Everyone gets three votes. They put them on the topics they would like to discuss.
- The group goes through the topics and discusses them in turn, ordered by the topics that have the most votes.
- The Facilitator checks in every five minutes to see if the group is finished with the current topic, or wants to continue the discussion.
This is based on the Lean Coffee meeting format.
The Facilitator sets the expectation that meetings are safe places. Participants discuss sensitive topics and there is an expectation of confidentiality. For example, a manager might talk about the challenges they were having with their manager.
When to use Mini-Ms
You should design your Mini-Ms based on the particulars of your company. The size and company culture are particularly important.
One precondition to this being successful is that the environment be a supportive one. If the leaders value learning and growth, they are more likely to support Mini-Ms properly. A competitive culture may not be a good fit.
I recommend Mini-Ms to companies with product-market fit. Early in the growth of a company, product-market fit is the most important factor in a company’s success. After you’ve found a good fit with the market, organizational effectiveness moves up in importance to become one of the most critical factors for your success. At that point, M-Teams begin to contribute more directly to the success of the company. While you can lay the groundwork for M-Teams earlier, I wouldn’t recommend them in most early stage companies.
You can use Mini-Ms globally, across an organization, or within a smaller group. You can even implement a Mini-M informally, with a smaller group of managers. If you start informally, be sure to read the History section to see how they evolved at New Relic.
How do I implement Mini-Ms?
We get to that in our next post.
Not a lot has been written about Mini-Ms, but there is one post currently on the New Relic blog, and another that has mysteriously vanished.
Bjorn Freeman-Benson was the founder of the Mini-M practice. He shared a lot of his thinking about the principles behind why Mini-Ms were successful and what they were aiming for. He advised me to break up this post into sections and make it easier to get to the implementation section. And shared overall feedback.
Nic Benders ran the first Mini-M, and established and evolved the practice. He also ran one of the more influential Mini-Ms for years. He reviewed this post, offered feedback, and contributed to the history section and described some of the design goals for Mini-Ms.
Darin Swanson authored some content that were inspirations for large parts of this article. He and I have worked together on helping other companies implement Mini-Ms, so contact me if you’re interested in help. He also provided feedback and suggestions on drafts of this article. He encouraged me to explain the first team concept more fully, and to describe why pre-product market fit companies may not be a good match. And he suggested I split the content into separate articles.
Elaine May provided feedback, some of which was so good I just ended up quoting her. She was gracious enough to offer some talk to talk about her experiences setting up or participating in similar programs at other companies. And she talked about her experiences with me in New Relic’s Mini-Ms. Elaine introduced me to the Chatham House Rules, which I incorporated into the post.
Merlyn Albery-Speyer helped me improve the section on “when to use Mini-Ms” by pointing out some preconditions for success. He pointed out that the structure became less important after the Mini-M is established. Merlyn pointed out that we tried to keep people from being in the same Mini-M as their managers, or other people reporting to the same manager. He also shared the theory about VPs not being willing to be vulnerable as a possible explanation for why the Mini-Ms never took off in manager of manager groups to the same extent they did for frontline managers.
Molly Graham contributed the section on “Manager coaching circles” in the variations post. She has an insightful newsletter.
Jason Poole shared his experience as an Organizer of Mini-Ms. He pointed out a now mostly disappeared second post on Mini-Ms. He also suggested ways Facilitators could counter unproductive ranting, and pointed out how effective the Mini-Ms were for improving our performance reviews.
Marty Matheny shared feedback based on his experience as an Organizer. He helped improve the advice for Organizers. And he pointed out that engineering adjacent departments participated.
Chris Hansen pointed out that confidentiality was an issue with whiteboards. He noticed an error that would have been embarrassing. He pointed out the value of M-teams in distributed organizations to counter isolation among managers. He also added some advice for participants. Chris also helped with a point about the value of the first few meetings.
Teresa Martyny reviewed a draft of this post and pointed out some redundant assertions I was making. And she recommended I break this into multiple posts or edit for brevity.
Natasha Litt was another early Mini-M leader, and she reviewed a draft of the post and contributed to it.
Marco Rogers influenced some of my thinking on building communities in a recent conversation, so some of his ideas were reflected in that section.
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