#84 - Activity vs Accomplishments
Plus: Unblocking one-on-ones
Hi - I hope your week has gone well.
I’ve been prompted by a few things to think about activity versus accomplishing lately.
Falling into a trap of doing stuff, and so feeling busy and industrious, but not actually getting anything meaningful accomplished is certainly a trap that individual contributors can get ensnared in. We’ve all worked with someone (“or been someone”, he said sheepishly) prone to bike shedding or yak-shaving or some other flavour of spinning around in a rabbit hole without making forward progress. (Whenever I have to explain yak-shaving to someone, this is the youtube video I point them to). It can feel like work to the IC, but to an external observer it’s pretty clear they’re stuck - they were tasked with doing the thing and they are very visibly not taking the direct route towards doing the thing.
But wow, with managers and above, the trap is way more subtle - and it’s not nearly as obvious to those around us when it happens.
Our work as managers or technical leaders is inherently only indirectly connected to the things getting done. We keep the team aligned on goals, so that the right things get done. We provide feedback and coaching so our team members can do things more effectively. We delegate so that our team members can individually do bigger things. We engage with stakeholders to find out what thing-doings need prioritization, and then we plan - now we’re getting two or three steps removed from things getting done.
So it’s deceptively, insidiously easy to fall into the trap of doing things that look like those important activities but have become unmoored from actually advancing the work of your team or the development and support of your team members. To have meetings or planning sessions that may have been relevant at one point but now don’t actually advance any goals. To engage with and collect feedback or input from stakeholders because that seems like the right thing to do, but the input doesn’t connect to any next steps - you’re taking measurements that aren’t informing decisions about anything concrete.
On my end, I’m on the periphery of engagement with an organization now that is very visibly being very busy doing stuff but not advancing meaningfully on any front. And seeing that is actually kind of useful, because it’s making me re-evaluate some of the activities I’m doing. One or two of them seemed like a good, well-motivated idea at the time, but in retrospect can be deleted with zero ill effects.
The only way as managers we can really tell is by having extremely clear priorities in mind, ideally in service of some kind of strategy, and being absolutely relentless about purging tasks that don’t advance those priorities. Like everything in management, it’s not complicated - but it takes discipline to keep doing it.
How to Get Your Silent 1-on-1s Back on Track - Emmanuel Goossaert
Whether it’s trust issues, or just overwhelm, one-on-ones can get quiet from time to time. For almost any other kind of meeting, if the meeting is short because there’s not much to say, that’s a win! But the purpose of one-on-ones is maintenance of a line of communication, more so than what is actually communicated in any given week. If that line of communication isn’t functioning, we as managers need to do the maintenance work to get it the communication flowing again.
Goossaert suggests having a library of open-ended questions to prompt conversations:
What has been on your mind these days?
What’s the most exciting/interesting thing you’ve worked on since we last spoke?
What has been the most frustrating thing for you over the past week?
What is one thing within our team/org that you’re looking forward to?
Is there something you’re trying to learn, either tech or soft skills? What can I do to help you with that?
Anything I can support you with?
The lettuce pact: The ultimate hack for giving difficult feedback - Brennan McEachran, Hypercontext
If you’re struggling to figure out how to improve your team’s frank but kind feedback to each other, McEachran has a suggestion. Riffing off a discussion from the Radical Candor team, the suggestion is to make things concrete, with a personally embarrassing but minor situation like someone about to give a talk with spinach between their teeth. They clearly have a right to be told, and there’s clearly better and worse ways to share it with the person, but it’s hard to know how to bring it up. It’s a good way to frame the discussion of giving feedback.
I think McEachran takes this too far and not far enough - a formal agreement 1:1 with each team member, but focussing only on personally embarrassing feedback rather than more generally telling someone that they’re not meeting an expectation - but nonetheless it may be a useful starting point for discussing feedback within your team.
Managing Your Own Career
One of the benefits of being a or working with research trainees is that it drives home that we’re not going to be retiring from our roles (grad student, postdoc) - they’re stepping stones, usually to new institutions, and that we’re responsible for our career development.
Even so, once we get a staff position, it’s easy to forget that. Cate enjoins us to keep it in mind, and be relentlessly in charge of our own professional development and career next steps:
My employer buys my time, they rent my personal brand […]. This concept also applies to expertise. My expertise is rented, and so I maintain my understanding of what it’s worth, and what is current on the open market.