The most important thing I learnt as a manager

I have been managing things and/or people for most time of my ten years at TouK. I followed a typical in our industry, I believe, path – take a decent developer and make him manage – funnily enough he will struggle. Two years ago, after some eight years of fooling around I found a tool that did miracles for me. Let me share a simple yet effective thing to be doing on a daily basis.

question

The most important thing I learnt as a manager

Why we become managers?

Boss CoffeeOften for a wrong reason :). Let’s reflect on how it usually looks like (at least in the software development industry). You start your career as a (under-)graduate developer and you join a team. After some time you do well and as a result you get some more responsibility. In a few months / years (depending on your talent, effort and the context) you are given responsibility over others, either as a team lead, project manager, senior developer, line manager, etc. I’ve seen this happen again and again at TouK and many other organizations. You got to this point, thus no doubt you are an outstanding developer, effective in coding or maybe even solving customers’ problems. And now, there are others who in case they have issues, they will be looking at you.

I bet dollars to donuts that rather sooner than later you will have someone come to your desk with a problem asking for help. Or at least guidelines. What are you going to do?

I think most of us will do what we feel most comfortable with… We eat problems for breakfast. We see a problem and we’re thrilled. We jump at it and start solving it. And that’s exactly the last thing we should be doing in such situation (well, ok, not the last, I can imagine worse things). If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her… I certainly am not.

What are you going to do about it?

The solution is so simple it’s a pity it never came to my mind… Not until I read about it in some book more or less two years ago. Unfortunately I forgot the name of the book :(.

Instead of bringing your best guns to shoot at the problem ask your colleague a simple question: What are you going to do about it? If the other comes with two options and asks for decision, reply: Which one would you choose? If the other comes in despair and asks what to do, ask: What are your options? Also, remember to ask what the other person has already tried or did.

At first you will feel that you are not helping. And the other person might feel the same. Some will get irritated because you are forcing them to think. But soon enough you will find that people you are trying to help, as they realize this is the first thing you are going to ask, they will start coming prepared for this question. They will start solving their own problems and coming with answers. Or at least ideas. The reward you will get will surprise you. Let me tell you a story.

I was practicing this technique for a few months, and some of my colleagues had the time to get used to it.  One day one of them came with yet another issue to discuss. After a few minutes the problem was described and an uneasy silence has fallen. We both knew the question was going to be asked. In silence I was observing my colleague’s face. At first I saw irritation: No, not again 😦… I refrained from acting and kept waiting. After ten or twenty seconds long as hell irritation changed to resignation and my colleague spoke up: Uhhhhhh, we could try… I kept listening. In a minute I heard a really good solution. But the most important thing to me was the spark in the eye I saw. The spark of happiness. The joy we all feel when we solve a puzzle. And even though I am definitely not the most empathetic person I know, all the emotions were so evident to me I doubt I could have misinterpreted them. It was one of the first times I felt I did well as a manager.

Now, after two years of practicing this I often catch myself on trying to maneuver the discussion so that asking the question will be possible. Sometimes it won’t fit the flow of the conversation, but it’s not to difficult to push it in the direction suiting you.

Finally, there’s also another reason why making others attempt to solve their problems is so important. In most situations the problems we are facing are very context dependent. And often, as a manager, you will lack this context. But I’m not going to elaborate on that now.

Issues

WarningLet me spend some time on a few warnings.

One thing I heard some time ago was that I had been asked for opinion not for coaching, as the person had already thought the options through. That’s a tricky situation. It may indicate you are overusing this practice, but also it may mean that this particular person is not comfortable with you pushing him to think on his own. I believe the reaction should depend on the context. What I did was I insisted to hear what the options are as a way of understanding the context of the situation better. After that I was happy to comment and present my point of view.

Another thing that can happen is that after understanding the problem you will simply know what to do. One of the options or solutions will clearly (to you) be better than others. Unfortunately the other person will insist on trying something else. I am not saying you should ignore it and do nothing. But be aware that interfering will often make you pay for it in the long run. I personally almost always regretted it. I learnt that often it’s better to try a wrong solution and quickly recover. And also there’s a possibility you may be wrong and the other person is right…

Remarks

Even though I started pointing at managers, I believe this idea is viable not only for them but also (and maybe even more) for mentors and leaders who are trying to help others grow.

Don’t ever be mad that someone took some action without asking you. Even if now you have to deal with the negative outcomes of such an action. Failing at that you will create a bureaucratic environment where nothing gets done without asking a supervisor. It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

What are you going to do about it? is a tool I found helpful in some contexts. It by no means is a silver bullet that should always be used. I hope you will find it useful as well but remember you have much more options available: sometimes it will be better to give a specific solution, sometimes you should do the thing yourself. Use common sense.

In 2012 during Lean Agile Scotland conference I attended a talk by John Peebles and one thought stayed with me until now. A software developer reads one book about programming a year on average. The moment he becomes a team leader or a manager the number of books about soft skills and people he reads approaches zero on average. The takeaway for me from this is to read books and educate yourself on skills you are going to need now.

Finally

Remember, your task as a leader is not to solve all problems the people you are leading are facing. Your task is to make them solve their problems. And to teach them how to become leaders for others. This is one simple trick that will help you with your task.

If you found this idea helpful you can subscribe to my blog here or follow me on Twitter. Or maybe drop a comment below…

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