#61 - 9 April 2021
Planning a return to offices; Killing unsuccessful efforts; Common misses in developing team members
I hope you’ve been well; I’ve had a short week with a 4-day Easter long weekend. Between being recharged for the weekend, and finally having a couple of days of work where I could focus on high-leverage activities - hiring discussions for our team and pushing forward a hiring process at an organizational level; writing a document useful in itself but also that will be a model for team members to write others in the future; getting two teams aligned and getting them to find a really good solution to a shared design problem - it’s been a really good week.
It took me a long time to re-orient myself to understanding what “a good day’s work” looks like for a manager. Everything is so much more direct and quicker-feedback as an individual contributor; the thing works or it doesn’t. As a manager, quick wins are few and far between - and you can only be really sure you made the right decision months after making it. So having two or three good managerial days in a row is a nice feeling and a good way to wind down a week.
I hope you’re having similar success.
And now, on to the roundup.
10 Stage Guide to Planning Your Return - Bruce Daisley, Make Work Better
At some point, the pandemic will be over and we’ll all be deciding what to do about the workplace. I think the most successful research computing teams will remain mostly distributed - and will in fact become more distributed as they start to hire new far-flung team members. But it’s not entirely up to all of us, and even those who stay largely WFH will probably want to come into the office together occasionally.
Daisley goes through ten steps in figuring out what “return” should look like. He lays out five nice clear things that “the office” did for us before:
It was a place to meet people by appointment
It was a place to meet people by accident
It was a workshop to do our best work
It was a place of congregation - we could foster team cohesion there
It was a place of learning
Some of these we now have pretty clear ways of dealing with without an office, but I think there’s areas where we’re still trying to figure things out. We have figured out 1 outside the office, and mostly 3 (although in-person white boarding is really powerful). Some teams are doing pretty well with 4, some aren’t. 2 and 5 I think most of us are still struggling with - especially teaching junior hires.
With those laid out, Daisley advocates for an experimental approach - find out what people’s needs are, propose experiments (with clear measures of success), and try them.
Research: How to Get Better at Killing Bad Projects - Ronald Klingebiel, HBR
As we talked about at the start of the year, it’s hard to stop doing things, even when they don’t make sense any more. As Klingebiel reports, even big companies with well-established stage gate processes for advancing projects are tempted to fudge the requirements to let struggling projects advance and take up more resources - especially when the requirements that are struggling are (the more important!) external user requirements which are about the future and nebulous users, as opposed to the very salient internal struggles like technical difficulty.
To avoid the problems seen by Sony Ericsson in this study, Klingebiel recommends:
Don’t look for “proof” of failure - there’ll never be such proof
Look instead for projects that are demonstrating promise and move resources into them
Focus on external user needs (in their lingo, the business case)
Common management failures in developing individual contributors - Camille Fournier
Fournier writes about some common ways that managers - especially new managers but I’d argue it’s quite common even in more experienced managers - fail to develop the skills of their team members. While we’ll often make time for a team member to learn some new framework or to read some papers in a new area, building them up in their technical/product leadership ability is more rare. Not only is this a wasted growth opportunity for the team members, it’s an good and important way for you to make time to grow your own skills in delegation - and then to be able to take on other responsibilities!
Fournier calls out five areas she sees that technical managers don’t take the opportunity to grow their ICs, and describes each very well in the article:
Doing all the technical design work yourself
Doing all of the project management yourself
Neglecting to give feedback
Hoarding information [LJD - this is surprisingly easy to find yourself doing unintentionally!]
Focusing too much on your personal output, and
All of these are very relevant in our work, but I think this quote below on feedback is especially valuable for those of us from research:
Many new managers are comfortable giving technical feedback and uncomfortable giving other kinds of feedback. They freely criticize the design and technical work of their team, but they don’t challenge their team members on other growth areas like collaboration, communication style, or project ownership.