#123 - Multitask By Doing Less: Using Your Vacation To Practice Delegating
Plus: Lego give-away matrix; Delivering bad news; Specialize without silos: not a small-team thing
Earlier we’ve talked about ways to say no to incoming requests; besides a flat-out no, I mentioned the possibility of involving another team, or supporting the research group in doing the work themselves. Community member Adam DeConinck sent in another suggestion:
Occasionally, I’ve seen requests come in for work that the research computing team isn’t going to do; but which is also not something that another provider exists to do, and which the customer can’t do themselves even with training. When that happens, the “support” I’ve been able to offer is to join the customer in advocating for change. For example, aggregate similar requests and find commonalities; then organize the customers involved and advocate to upper management that they provide resources for this work to be done. That’s often not terribly satisfying, and I’ll admit that my success rate in doing this isn’t very high. (Non-zero, though!) But it’s often the only way I’ve found to create new classes of service within an existing organization.
This is a great suggestion, taking the long term view - and by lending your voice to the research groups’ in advocating for support for different kinds of work, it turns the situation into “your team and the research group vs the problem” rather than “your team disagreeing with the research group”.
This is the time of year when I’m just beginning to see the “out of office” emails in response to the newsletter - I expect them to grow more numerous in the coming month. Probably because of that, one question I got asked recently (and went up on the topics poll, receiving an upvote) was how to handle going on vacation.
Preparing to go on vacation is a great opportunity to practice delegation — to give your team members opportunities to grow in responsibility. That growth in responsibility can be temporary, but it can also be the beginning of a permanent handoff of some activities or responsibilities. One link I sent out back in #70, Always Be Quitting, described this mindset quite well and has been commented on several times by community members:
The key lies in NOT being indispensable. […] Paradoxically, by being disposable, you free yourself. You make it easier for yourself to grow into a higher-level role and you make it easier for yourself to change the projects you work on.
By bringing others into meetings you take, by documenting your knowledge and the state of projects, you make it easier for yourself to step back from some responsibilities to make room for other work, while enabling others to take them on. Vacation is a fantastic opportunity to trial-run delegation, to give you and a team member the opportunity to test the delegation in a very time-boxed way that’s readily explainable to others.
One-on-ones are are a great vehicle for finding out what professional growth team members are interested in - the Manager, Ph.D. one-on-one template cover sheet has a spot for “what’s next” to keep track of possible next steps on their growth, and the quarterly goal setting and review forms include regular check-ins on career goals and a opportunity to start making explicit plans. Key to doing this well is the idea of a responsibility ladder (#4), or of task-relevant maturity (#42). Giving people growth opportunities while setting them up to succeed means not just dropping them in the deep end, but by giving them responsibility for gradually increasing scope in that area. This article on an engineering team where everyone is a leader, also from #4, describes the process in the context of software development projects in particular, but applies more widely.
When we have a good sense of who are willing and might be soon be ready to take on particular aspects of our current work, those are now target areas in which to tidy up our own work. We can make sure our documentation of the state of the effort is current, or start writing up the processes we go through, or collect meeting notes. Those can then be shared, and we can start bringing the team members to relevant meetings. We can review the state of those activities in one-on-ones, in preparation for any handoff. They could practice taking a meeting for us in that area, updating the one notes, and debriefing afterwards if some conflict arises (or can be arranged to arise).
If this has already been done before going off on vacation, great! People should be prepared and confident to step in for you on those activities over the coming weeks. But if not, in areas where there’s unlikely to be huge fires to be put out or decisions to be made in the short term, don’t let that stop you from handing off tasks in your absence. Do them and you the favour of being explicit about what they should and shouldn’t feel empowered to do on their own in that area, and what should wait for your return - but try to make that last as little as possible.
Prep a “While I’m Away” list - a list of things that you expect may come up, or deadlines, or special notes or reminder
Put one person in charge - to keep things moving, and to handle any things that weren’t in explicitly delegated areas: again, let them know what is and isn’t in scope
Ask your team to keep a collaborative set of notes - this was a great idea I hadn’t seen before this article - everyone keeps notes on what happened in your absence in one document. This lets them share information internally, and gives you one briefing document to catch up on
Turn on your Out of Office Alert - directing correspondants to the relevant people
Do not reply to your email or voicemails
Carve out 2 hours in the morning when you get back to get caught up
You don’t necessarily have to start doing all of this all at once your next vacation (or conference trip, or…), but these steps, combined with some preparation for delegating particular responsibilities, are a great place to aim to be after the next few absences. Debriefing afterwards will give both you and your team members an opportunity to discuss whether you’d both be comfortable taking on the responsibility permanently, with you still there to coach and advise,
Does that seem helpful? What other approaches have you taken to handing off responsibilities while you’re away? Let me know - just hit reply or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Speaking of vacation, I’m going to take the next two weeks off from the newsletter - I’ll be back on Aug 19th or 20th (I’m going to try to get back onto a Friday schedule, although we’ll see how that goes).
With that, on to the roundup!
Give Away Your Legos Matrix - Evan Rutledge Borden
Very relevant to the discussion above - even after you get back from vacation, what tasks should you not take back on? Borden writes this article inspired by Give Away Your Legos by Molly Graham. (Graham’s article article was also recently recommended by RCT community member Rodrigo Ortega Polo, after the Bioinfo-core session he co-organized). The article is almost entirely the diagram below.
There’s only two things I’d add. The first is that over time, the bar for things you keep doing because you enjoy them should get raised higher and higher. It’s not bad, necessarily, to still hoard a couple of activities to yourself that you love. Yes, these are activities your team members will likely need to grow into eventually (such as when you’re away!). But maybe they’re the tasks that give you sine needed energy and engagement. The key is not to do it unthinkingly, but to realize what you’re doing and why.
The second is something RCT community member Scott Delinger has reminded me of a couple of times. Any even cursory audit of tasks such as this one should include a filter for “does anyone really need to keep doing this?” Love it or not, complex or not, if the team just dropped this task entirely how bad would it be, really? If no one did it while you were away, and you just didn’t start doing it again, is that something you could get away with? Do the benefits really outweigh the costs of your most precious resource, time? Usually the answer will be that you have to keep doing it, but when you do find stuff to stop doing that’s found extra time.
Note that in the diagram below, “automate” could literally mean just have a computer do the work, but it can also be work simplification by folding some task into some other regularly occurring process.
How to Deliver Bad News - Ed Batista
Whether it’s discussions with stakeholders, institutional decision makers, job candidates, or team members, we often have to be the bearer of bad news. It doesn’t get easy, exactly, but when we’re new to it we often make it even harder on ourselves than it has to be. That’s the part we can do something about.
Batista writes specifically about delivering bad news to more senior decision makers or stakeholders. Our part of these conversations is pretty simple (not easy, but simple) - he has a three-part formula:
Here’s What Happened
Here’s Why (or Here’s What I’ve Learned So Far)
Here’s What I’m Planning to Do [LJD: and being open to suggestions or directions]
We have to deliver bad news in a timely manner, but we should at least be prepared to talk about what we know about why something happened and have an initial recommendation for next steps.
Batista then describes three things that make things go a little easier - all of which are things we can influence:
Trust - the more one-on-one discussions we’ve had with the people we’re talking to, and the more trust we’ve earned over time, the more smoothly these conversations go
[our own] Emotional regulation - staying calm, and not getting defensive when the obvious and necessary alarm registers and questions get raised
[our own] Perspective - this situation may feel like the end of the world in the moment, but it isn’t.
In HBR there’s an article by Liz Fosslein on How to Pace Yourself at Work While Pregnant. It’s also useful for suggestions those of us like me who don’t know first or even second hand the challenges of pregnancy how to support our coworkers and team members who are pregnant.
A NASA video of computational fluid dynamics highlights from 1989.
And that’s it for another week. Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share about the newsletter or management. Just email me or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and good luck in the coming week with your team,