Gaining Independence and Influence (CAD Manager Column)

30 Jun, 2008 By: Robert Green

Obtaining the trust and support of your users will enable you to gain the latitude to operate as you choose.

No matter how many users you support or CAD programs you work with, every CAD manager can benefit from having more influence over his or her CAD environment and more independence in which to operate. After all, the more independence you gain, the greater latitude you'll have to pursue new technologies, create timesaving processes for your users, and influence your company's productivities, right?

Budgeting Advice for the CAD Manager
Budgeting Advice for the CAD Manager

So how do you set a course to achieve more independence and attain the influence that great CAD managers want? I'll endeavor to answer that question in this month's column.

Users and Management

The blunt truth is that CAD managers must serve two distinct groups: CAD users and senior management. Many times you may feel it impossible to serve both well, but that's not the case if you plan carefully. For most CAD managers, serving the relatively technical needs of users comes more naturally, so let's begin the quest by setting priorities that will help to gain credibility and influence with users. Then, as mastery of the technical or user side of the CAD management task becomes natural, you'll complete your acquisition of independence by tackling the long-range priorities your management cares about. Only by approaching the CAD management job in this progressive manner can you build the grass-roots user support you'll need to impress your management.

Influence over CAD Users

To wield influence in your company, you need to show your users that you know what you're doing and that you're in control. I've found that CAD users — be they engineers, architects, designers, or company presidents — respect CAD managers who can perform the following functions:

Be production ready. Have a crunch deadline? Do some production work to help catch up even if you normally never do production work. The worst thing users can ever say about the CAD manager is that they don't understand their needs. If you can jump right into production work, you'll never be criticized for not knowing your stuff and you'll gain respect.

Make things fast. Find new or unused software features that can shave clicks and picks from your user's day-to-day tasks. Automate boring repetitive tasks with macros, programs, or custom toolbars. Most users are under pressure to produce more in less time, and they're not going to complain when you make things faster for them. Find enough of these timesaving features and processes, and users will start coming to you with other ideas — and a productivity snowball will start rolling.

Evangelize about new technology. Users will only be enthused about new technology if you are. In fact, some users might not be excited even when you are, so you'll have to put on your marketing hat and make them understand what the benefits are. There's nothing more powerful than a group of CAD users who want to learn, and only you can get them pumped up to do so. The way to get them pumped up is to show them what you know.

Take the training lead. Great CAD managers take responsibility for user knowledge and training, whether they perform the training or not. The point is, if you simply drop new software on users' desktops without showing them how it works, those users aren't motivated to follow your lead. By facilitating user training, no matter how formal or casual, users know that you're on their side.

Be a user advocate. Make sure that CAD users' concerns are heard up the management ladder whenever appropriate. I've found that simply pushing for fast hardware and basic training goes a very long way toward gaining user trust because those topics are key frustrations in many environments. If users know you'll stick up for them, they're much more likely to listen to and respect you.

User Conclusions

I'd like to point out that every action item I've outlined for gaining influence with your users will help you run a smoother, more productive CAD environment, so there's no reason not to use them. Taking these steps yields a win for you because you'll stay saner and happier. It's a win for your users because they will be better supported and more ready to learn from you. There's simply no downside in using these techniques to gain positive influence with your users.

The other thing to note is that when you have a stable CAD user base you can begin to focus your attention more on the managerial side of your job to gain trust and autonomy from your senior management staff. Don't try to rush the management side of things until the user community is under control, but do become more managerial the moment you achieve control.

Independence Comes from Management

I talk with many CAD managers who say that their bosses don't understand what they do. Some say this in a negative way, but others seem to grudgingly accept it. My take on this phenomenon is that when my boss doesn't have to understand what I'm doing, then he or she will leave me alone to do my job as I see fit. In other words, your boss really doesn't want to do your job. He or she would love for you to handle it on your own, but you have to be up to the task first.

Would you like to control your CAD agenda on your own without a lot of management oversight? Would you enjoy more autonomy? Do you feel like you could better serve your users if you could set your own priorities? To gain this level of autonomy you're going to have to convince your boss that you should have it, because only your boss can grant it. Therefore, independence is something that requires you to understand your boss's needs and petition your boss for that independence.

If independence is derived from your boss, what can you do to hasten it? Here are a few things that I've observed over the years that always seem to work:

Transparent user support. It all starts with support. The reality is that all CAD managers provide user support, but some do it with more grace and less grunt — and those CAD managers score major points with their management. When your users get the support they need without having to raise a fuss, your boss never hears about problems because there aren't many problems to hear about. When you do have a problem, handle it quickly and accurately so it doesn't escalate. If your boss has no idea of how much user support you provide, then you're doing a great job! Note that your boss' perspective on support is very different than that of your users.

Manage projects, not tools. If your boss trusts you to handle the day-to-day CAD support issues, then the next challenge is to achieve trust for longer timeframe tasks such as project milestones. The way to achieve this trust is to manage CAD projects, not tools. Tackle technical problems in the context of project deadlines, and you'll start working on the right topics at the right time and avoid problems with project timelines. For example, don't worry about how to convert DGN files from a subcontractor to DWG files for your users because it is a cool technical problem; worry about it because it will be a required function for an upcoming project. When you report to your management, make sure to tell them not just what you're working on, but why you're doing so and what project the work will benefit. When your management understands that you're project focused, they'll trust you more and will start to grant you independence to the extent that projects continue to function well.

Budget well. Forecast your software needs, anticipate training requirements, plan for new hardware, and never get surprised by a big-budget item you didn't include — you'll start to look like a genius, right? However, this scenario won't all happen by accident, you'll need to plan for it. If you'd like some pointers about how to handle budgeting and return on investment justifications for big-budget items, please see "Budgeting Advice for the CAD Manager." Having your budget in order shows your boss that you can think a year ahead and keep all the details straight. After he or she understands, the trust transformation will be complete and you will attain operational independence.

Management Conclusions

Management, be it CAD or any other sort, is really just the art of dealing with problems as they arise and, hopefully, learning from those negative experiences so that you won't repeat them. So if you manage your CAD resources in a way that problems don't pop up, or they at least are infrequent, you must be a pretty good manager, right? On the other hand, if your boss has to field complaints from other departments about CAD-related problems, then you must not be managing things well. Welcome to your boss' mind!

By tackling the short-, medium-, and long-term management challenges of user support, project management, and budgeting, you'll show your management that you deserve all the independence in the world. The reason your boss will grant you that independence is because you've demonstrated the ability to handle it.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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