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A line to see someone is not cool, but is blocking progress

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Gridlock'd movieIt might seem cool if there is a line outside someone’s door (or an inbox full of follow-ups in Outlook or a multi-week wait to “get on the schedule”).  “Boy that person is really important” is what folks might say.  In reality this bottleneck is a roadblock to progress and a sign of a team in need of change.

Most of the time we see managers with a line outside a door, but it can also be key leaders on a team of all sorts.  Here are some tips to get out of the way and stop the gridlock.

Be sure to take the poll at the end of this post http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QXR9WLZ Feel free to use the comments to share your experience with a bottleneck on your team–there are folks out there probably experiencing something similar and benefit from your perspective.  At the end of this post are the results from Career: Journey or Destination, which has some very interesting trends.

Why is there a line?

Managers or org leaders are busy.  But so are the members of the team that work for the manager or depend on that leader.  Unfortunately the way things go, too many folks end up as a bottleneck in getting things done. It might be a sign of importance or genuine workload, but it can also be a sign of a structural challenge.  What are some of the reasons for a line?

  • Approval.  A manager asks to approve work before it can move forward.
  • Feedback. Members of the team awaiting feedback from on proposed work.
  • Decision.  A leader is the decision maker in a situation.

On the face of it, each of these sound like the role of a manager (or leader, we’ll use them interchangeably in this post).  The dictionary definition of a manager even supports this, “a person who has control or direction of an institution, business, etc., or of a part, division, or phase of it”.  The operative notion is “in charge”.

There are several problems with this approach:

  • Demotivating.  If a job involves creativity (artistic, design, creation, problem solving, or a million other ways of being creative) then people who do those jobs well don’t generally do their best work under control.  At an extreme, highly creative people are notorious for not wanting to be directed.  The close cousin of demotivating is disempowering and very quickly creative people on the team lose the motivation to do great work and seek to get by with merely good work.
  • Scale. A manager that operates a team as an “extension” of him/herself is not highly scalable.  The line out the door represents the scale problem—it is trying to squeeze 64 bits through a 32 bit gate.  There’s simply more work than can be done.  The manager is overworked trying to do the work of the whole team, which is not sustainable.
  • Slow. A manager that inserts him/herself in the middle of the flow of work causes the flow of work to slow down.  The reaction time of the whole team no longer represents the capability of the team, but is limited by the ability of one person. Most folks are pretty frustrated by the roadblock to approval and then ultimately approval of the work as initially presented.
  • Tactical. Those who operate in the middle of the work like this often justify their style as “adding strategic context”.  This is often the exact opposite of what happens as the person is too busy to breath, take a step back, or to think long term because of the line out the door!

There are many justifications for why managers see these downsides as worth the risk.  Managers feel like they have the experience to do better, know more, or maybe the team is new, understaffed, and so on.  These are juicy rationalizations.  Like parents doing homework and school projects for their kids, the short term seems reasonable but the long term becomes problematic.

Accountability

Beyond gridlock, the deep, long term problem created by a line outside a manager’s door is the transferal of accountability that takes place.  Once the manager is in the middle of approving, providing feedback, or deciding then the very best case is that the manager is accountable for the outcome.  Wait, you say that’s always the case, right?

A manager should be accountable when things don’t go well and stand up to claim the work of the team that wasn’t what it needed to be.  When things go well, the manager should fade away and the team should shine.  This isn’t some ideal.  This is just the basics of teamwork and what needs to happen.  That goes beyond management and is leadership.

But when a manager is in the middle of everything, members of the team have a tough time feeling a sense of pride of ownership.  The further the results are from ideal, the less likely individuals feel responsible.  It is simply too easy to point to places where each person surrendered accountability to management.  And unfortunately, this opens up potential for the worst form of dysfunction which is a manager in the middle of everything stepping back and still assigning accountability to the team when things don’t go well, politics.

Ultimately, any healthy team is about everyone feeling an equal sense of accountability for the groups work and full accountability for their work.  The role of the manager is to create a team and workflow that enables everyone to contribute and grow.

Rhythm of the team

The most important thing a manager can do to create a workflow for the team is to foster a continuous rhythm of work on the team.  The world of modern products and service means things are in a state of change and adaptation all the time.  Stores roll over promotions constantly.  Web sites are always being programmed.  Social networks provide a constant dialog to contribute to and respond to.  Product feedback is available all the time.  The team that is standing on a line is not just missing all the action, but is playing a losing strategy.

In his famous book, Flow: the psychology of optimal experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about how important it is to be engaged in self-controlled, goal-related, meaningful actions.  That when you’re doing that you are in a flow and things are much better (“happier”) for everyone.

A flow on a business team or product team is about working towards a shared goal and doing so without the starts and stops that interrupt the flow.  As a manager there are two simple things you can do:

  • Never schedule your full day.  As a rule of thumb, you should never schedule more than 50% of your day in structured meetings and other required activities.  This leaves your day for “work” which is your work as a contributor (being a manager does not mean you stop having concrete deliverables!) and for keeping things from being blocked by you.  If you have time during the day you can interact in an ad hoc manner with the team, find time to participate before things reach a bottleneck, and most importantly you have time to listen and learn.  This is the number one crisis prevention tool at your disposal.  The more time you have available the more time you can provide feedback when the time is right for action, as an example.  You can provide feedback when a plan is a draft and do so casually and verbally, rather than the team “presenting” a draft in a meeting and you needing to react, or sending you an attachment that forms another line in your inbox, all usually too late for substantial feedback anyway.
  • Stop approving and deciding.  As heretical as this sounds, as an experiment a manager is encouraged to spend a month pushing back on the team when they ask for approval or a decision.  Instead just ask them to decide.  Ask them what would go wrong if they decided.  Ask them if they are prepared for the implications of a decision either way.  Ask them if they are comfortable owning and “defending” a decision (knowing you as the manager will still be supporting them anyway).

As a member of the team waiting in line, there’s an option for you too.  Instead of asking for approval or the other side of the coin, acting now and worrying later, take the time to frame your choice in a clear and confident manner.  Don’t be defensive, aggressive, or shift accountability, but simply say “Here’s what I’m suggesting as a course of action and what we’re prepared to deal with as the risk…” No choice is free of risk.  The risky path is simply not being prepared for what could potentially go wrong.

The optimal team is one that is moving forward all the time and operating with a flow and rhythm.  A line outside the door of a manager is a sign of a dysfunctional team.  It isn’t hard to break the cycle.  Give it a shot.

–Steven

The poll on this post is http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/QXR9WLZ.  Let’s share thoughts on those lines outside doors.

Thanks to everyone who responded to our last survey on the “Defining your career path: journey or destination” post.  We had an amazing response, with over 800 responses from around the world.  Here are a few of the highlights:

  • On average (mean), people have spent around 13 years in their career
  • In those years, people have held 5.5 jobs or roles; or about 2 years per job/role
  • About 26% claimed to be mostly “goal oriented”
  • About 60% claimed to be mostly “experience oriented”
  • 6% more sought to be “organization leaders” vs. “domain experts” (41% vs. 35%)
  • And about 8% more sought to be “breadth leaders” vs. “field experts (42% vs. 34%)
  • On average, we’re pretty satisfied with our careers: 3.7 on a 5-point scale

 In this survey we had a nice “response variable” to consider: career satisfaction.  If we agree that this is a goal we share, we can consider how the other “explanatory variables” contribute to overall career satisfaction:

  • Those that claimed to be more “experience oriented” tended to have a higher level of career satisfaction vs. those that were more “goal oriented”; those that reported being “very satisfied” with their careers were >3x more likely to be “experience oriented”
  • Those with longer careers tended to be more satisfied: both “career years” and “number of jobs” provided a fractional lift in the 5-point career satisfaction scale
  • Pursuing a goal of “organizational leader” tended to provide more lift than “domain expert”
  • And pursuing a experiences as a “field expert” tended to provide more lift to satisfaction than experiences as a “breadth leader” (though more consider themselves to be the latter)
  • None of the models built in analyzing this data did a great job of explaining all of the variance in your responses; we are all different and find satisfaction in our careers in different ways

 Bottom Line: There is no “silver bullet” which guarantees our career satisfaction; people are different and their satisfaction is driven by various factors, at different career stages.  That said, as leaders, we generally tend to find satisfaction based on our experiences with other people (as org leaders, experts in our field, more time in our careers/more roles over time) over the specific goals or attained knowledge we encounter through our journey. 

 Thanks for your responses!

Cameron

Written by Steven Sinofsky

April 11, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in posts

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5 Responses

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    October 2, 2013 at 8:49 pm

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    July 19, 2013 at 11:17 am

  4. I have the feeling that sometime the people who have a schedule full of meetings until the end of days do this to avoid accountability. May be I’m just paranoid.

    On the other hand I know people who take great pride in being a bottleneck. As crazy as it sounds, it makes them feel important.

    Christophe

    April 16, 2013 at 5:58 am

  5. One of your best posts till date! Pleasurable read Steve :D


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