#153 - Work Of vs On The Team: Making Time
Plus: The art of delegation; being a thermostat not a thermometer; steps to strategy; being more collaborative when you just want to do all the deciding yourself
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Work Of The Team Vs Work On The Team
There are broadly two kinds of work that managers and leads have to keep in mind, and distinguish between. There’s the work that is expected of the team, and the work that goes into improving the team’s effectiveness, internally and with stakeholders.
Work of the team, work being done in the team, is the work that leads to the team’s expected outputs. It includes all routine tasks, but also fire-fighting (solving unexpected urgent problems), writing reports/presentations/whatever and sending them onward, meetings with stakeholders, and so forth.
Work on the team is is different. Work on the team is the work that goes into strengthening the team, growing the individuals, improving how the team works amongst itself and in collaboration with peer teams and external stakeholders. Coaching, mentoring, feedback, improving processes and communication practices, building resources for the team itself, reprioritizing the work of the team, hiring, firing — that’s work on the team.
As managers and leads, our main job is to create an environment where people can do their best work and grow, and where the right work is being done well. Our main and most important responsibility is the work on the team.
It’s not generally the case that only the manager can do work on the team — in fact, it’s good and normal that some of that work is done by the team members. Seniors mentoring juniors on domain skills, for instance, or team members engaging with stakeholders.
But it’s unfair to put too much of this work on the team. Glue work (#22), for instance, is undervalued and under-recognized in individual contributors; it can hurt them in evaluations, and it can be super stressful to perform when one doesn't the the role authority to go along with it. Judiciously delegating some these tasks can be very helpful in moderation when it’s intentionally (on both sides) a professional development opportunity. But it’s fundamentally our job, and it’s important for us to see it done and done well.
Work of the team should always be doable in principle by a team member. Maybe you came from this team, were the only person who did it before, and since the promotion you still do it. Maybe there’s some other reason no one else yet has the skills, knowledge, or relationships to do it. But in principle it’s something a team member could and should do.
It is vitally important for us as managers and leads to prioritize and make time for work on the team. If we spend 10 hours doing work of the team, we’ve saved the team 10 person-hours. If we spend 10 hours instead doing work on the team, helping make a 5 person team 1% more effective, we’ve saved the team 100 person-hours this year. And whether it’s improving a process, or doing coaching, or improving clarity of expectations, or deprioritizing less important tasks, 1% improvements are easily accomplished, if you have the time.
Ah. There’s the problem.
The Problem: Feeling Stuck on a Hamster Wheel
There’s two equilibria managers and leads can find themselves in.
The first is the most common. It’s the stable equilibrium, it’s the default end state. It’s when managers feel like they're stuck on a hamster wheel, constantly running but never getting anywhere. The issue isn’t lack of effort - when we’re in this mode, we’re furiously busy. But here we spend most of our time solving preventable problems or doing work that someone else could do if we had the time to teach them. Here we wish we could focus more on the big picture and the long-term goals, instead of the daily fires and the urgent tasks and the things no one else knows how to do. We’d like to do work on the team. But instead, it’s all work of the team — which is urgent, because it’s expected that the team generate these outputs.
The second is the state we want to be in. There’s clear processes, there’s re-usable work artifacts like templates and automations, there’s enough time to make sure everything is on track and to delegate responsibilities and to team members which are desirable growth opportunities for them while giving us time to keep an eye on how our team and team members are doing, in their individual professional development and in the team’s collective results. We have lots of time available to do the work on the team.
Finding Time To Work On The Team
This good equilibrium, unfortunately, is only quasi-stable. A finite perturbation will knock us right off of it, absent active intervention to bring us back. It takes constant effort - doable effort, but effort - to stay there.
Coming from the research world, we’re kind of completionists. We see points A and B and want a single clear plan to get us from one to the other, and to be able to focus on that plan. But when we’re stuck in the default, furiously busy state, we don’t have that luxury. We can only try to carve out a path one step at a time to get us moving in the right direction.
That will work! It’s easy to underestimate the potential of steady, consistent, incremental improvement. And that incremental improvement the only thing I've seen that can reliably help leads and managers get from one state to the other.
Add a Small Task to Make the Future Better
The approach is this: every time you do one of those urgent things that you know isn’t as important as other work you could be doing, or something that you could delegate or prevent in the future, add a small task to make the situation better the next time around.
It doesn’t have to be a big effort. Find a few moments during each when doing each of these urgent items to take one small step towards making the task more delegatable (documentation, understanding professional goals), or the work more re-usable (templates, automations), or for preventing the problem from happening again (by reworking how things are done).
It only has to cost the amount of effort of one small action that will make your life easier and your team more effective in the long run, repeated each time.
Doing Work That Can Be Delegated
If you’re doing work that you know could be handled in principle by someone else — and that covers basically everything that’s work of the team — while you’re doing it, do something to make it easier to delegate this work in the future:
Make a first draft of documenting the process while you’re doing it; or
Record yourself (screen recording or just on your phone) narrating the process while you do it; or
Put together a first list of all the resources, documents, addresses, names, etc that you need to perform this work and put it somewhere easily found; or
Add an agenda item in upcoming one-on-ones to find out who would be interested in doing this kind of work.
We’ve all been in modes where an unreasonable amount of time is being spent solving urgent problems that ought to be preventable.
Look back in your email or calendars for other times this issue has come up, and schedule some time to go through them to find patterns; or
Choose a single place that can be used to collect information while problems are occurring in the future, so there’s more data to use to understand the issue; or
Schedule a postmortem meeting with everyone involved to dig into root causes and propose preventative measures.
Managing A Recurring Process / Writing A Recurring Document
When we’re going through the steps of some process that recurs every so often, you may be so rushed to get through it that we’re not thinking about how it can be done better. If the process takes significant lengths of time, adding one more short task to
Spend a little bit of time paying attention to areas the process could be streamlined - steps merged, needed information pre-collected, different pieces put together in the same place; or
Add an agenda item for the next team meeting to discuss possible improvements to the process; or
Improve the documentation around the process; or
Create a checklist or template from what you’ve already done; or
If multiple people are involved, schedule a retrospective to get ideas how to improve.
Handling Recurring or One-Off Questions
For recurring questions, some small task options include:
Start a FAQ/knowledge base document, whether internal facing or external, and add the Q and the answer you’re writing. As it grows, you can point people to it to try to prevent questions, or use it as a convenient library of answers; or
Look into automation options for responding; or
Consider whether the question can be prevented by changing how something is done.
If you find yourself frequently handling or being interrupted by by one-off-questions, then some possibilities are to see if they can be batched:
For questions from team members, encourage people to bring them to you during one-on-ones; (note: do not skip one-on-ones because you’re busy; it is a false economy that will cost you more time than it saves); or
For questions coming in externally, if they’re coming in via mail or some electronic medium, quickly schedule a small amount of time on your calendar once a day to write responses; or
Investigate options for expanding the number of people who can respond; or
For people coming in person, investigate possibilities for “office hours” or frequent user AMAs or some other way of nudging people to batch their questions themselves
“Tuesday’s No Good For Me, How About Wednesday?”
If you’re spending a lot of time repeatedly scheduling one-off meetings, maybe there’s a way to reduce the time spent:
Keep an eye out for meetings not essential for you to be at, and ask someone else to send you notes; or
Examine if the topic is something that can be delegated to a team member; or
If doodle is a tool that gets used a lot for your work, add a task to create a free account and integrate your calendar so it will automatically uncheck times you’re already busy; or
After this scheduling is done, look into calendly, or using existing Exchange and Google Calendar functionality to either provide a “book me” link, or look for applications that provide a list of available times for sending.
You Can’t Always Get There From Here
I want to end on a cautionary note. What I’ve described, consistently finding small ways to make the next time around easier and less time consuming for you, is the most reliable solution I know of to getting yourself off of cycle of being furiously-busy if a solution is in fact possible.
But this process is a local change. Local changes can’t fix structural problems (#146). There are teams that, for one reason or another, just are not set up to succeed. If that’s the case, often one can successfully advocate for change. And other times, one can’t, and really the only option is start looking for a team where you can succeed.
It’s sometimes tough to know from inside the situation which is which. If an outside opinion would help you thinking this through, or on any other topic, do just email email@example.com, or set up a short call with me. I really do want to help.
If you have any experience digging yourself out of furiously busy modes, email me or leave a comment - I’d love to hear how you did it.
And now, on to the roundup!
The art of delegation — a practical guide for managers - Matthew Bradburn
Very relevantly for the discussion of work in vs work on above, and our discussion of Task Relevant Maturity in #148, Bradburn has very concrete steps for how to delegate; it’s a good article.
Before I attempt to summarize his article, something that keeps coming up when I talk to ex-researchers: Delegation is good. It’s not being lazy and foisting our work on someone else. It’s a vital part of helping our team members grow.
It’s our responsibility to create the environment where work gets done well and people grow. It’s our duty to help grow the abilities of our team members. Giving a team member an opportunity expand their responsibilities, see new aspects of how the team does its work, and try their hands at new tasks that might advance them in the direction they want to progress, is an unalloyed good.
Like my discussion above, Bradburn advocates routinely looking for tasks to delegate:
Consider the work you need to complete in the next 2 weeks. Answer the below questions for each project/task: How impactful is this work? Who can do it? Who would like to or is capable of learning to do this?
and then either setting up the foundations if no one else can do it yet, and setting up a level of monitoring appropriate to the work’s importance.
Other steps he lays out:
Delegate goals, not tasks - it’s very helpful to have a reference, known-good process for doing the work when the person is starting out, but delegate the outcome not the specific tasks. If they have better ways to do it, great! And have them share it once it’s done.
Set expectations with your boss and with yourself - things will be done differently, they might take longer; they might even take more of your effort initially providing guidance. That’s all ok. It’s about work on the team and work of the team.
Treat the delegation as a growth opportunity for you to improve your management skills
Treat the delegate as a growth opportunity for them.
There’s further discussion on how to get better and better, with yourself, with the individual team member, and with the team as a whole about the delegation process.
Be a Thermostat, Not a Thermometer - Lara Hogan
A lot of people with our background are kind of excruciatingly aware of how other people are reacting and emoting, even if we’re not aware it:
[…] we just see someone using a different tone of voice or shifting their body language, and something deep in our brain notices it. If you’ve ever attended a meeting where there were some “weird vibes,” you know what I’m talking about. You couldn’t quite put your finger on it, but something about the energy of the room was off—and that feeling affected you, even if it was super subtle. We’re wired to spidey sense this stuff; this gut instinct is part of what’s helped us stay safe for millenia. Our amygdalas are constantly on the lookout for threats in our environment that could be bad news. […] We often even jump to the assumption that those vibes are about us.
Hogan’s come ups with an analogy I’ve never heard before - that this sensitive awareness of the people environment is like being a thermometer, where that environment changes our “setting”; she suggests building skills in instead adjusting the environment, being a thermostat:
Rather than let that cycle play out subconsciously, you have an opportunity to become the thermostat as soon as you notice that another person’s temperature has changed. You get to set the new temperature of the room, in a positive and healthy way.
She gives some concrete ways you can try to adjust the “temperature” of the interaction:
Naming what’s going on
Choosing your tone and body language deliberately:
Gently nod at or slower than the pace at which they’re talking
Make soft eye contact
Be intentional in your tone
Offer a break
Talk about what you’ve learned from the interaction or what you’ll do.
She also has some good resources, from her blog and elsewhere, to go further on ths.
Steps to Strategy - Seth Falcon
Once we start to break free of the furiously busy cycle, we’re often urged to spend some time “thinking about the big picture”. Which is, you know, a good idea, but expressed that way isn’t super helpful. What’s that supposed to look like?
I like Falcon’s approach here. He recommends first picking one area that needs attention, then thinking very concretely about the next 90 days, and what can be done to improve that one area over that short period. (A quarter is a great length of time, it’s long enough to accomplish something meaningful, but short enough that the future is fairly clear).
As you build up experience doing that, Falcon advises thinking further in the future, and I like the four prompts he suggests as ways to start thinking over those more nebulous periods of time:
Wish list - Make a list of things you’d like to be true in 6, 12, or 24 months.
Worry list - By default, what are the biggest problems you’ll face in a year?
Back to the future - Look back and consider being able to change past decisions and directions.
10x the current baseline - What if the thing Y was 10x faster or 10x better?
Those aren’t the only prompts one could imagine - another I like is the hypothetical retrospective, “The time next year, when [good thing X] or [bad thing Y] has happened, you do a retrospective. What do you uncover in the retrospective that enabled/caused the thing?”
Thinking about these very nebulous and kind of silly questions sounds goofy, but they’re actually demonstrably good ways of breaking out of the thought patterns that we’re stuck in when doing the day-to-day work and doing a little controlled brainstorming with ourselves.
In fact, one of the problems with this approach is that you can end up with more ideas than you can possibly implement:
Now that you’ve got a full notebook of ideas and possible plans, there’s an opposing force for you to consider. How much capacity do you have to put towards longer term initiatives?
Managing Your Own Career
Becoming More Collaborative — When You Like to Be in Control - Jenny Fernandez and Luis Velasquez, HBR
We’re used to being the experts. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard for many of us to let go of the work of the team and focus on work on the team. When doing the tasks, we feel like the experts we trained to be. When doing the much more nebulous and ambiguous work of managing and leading a team …. well, we don’t.
That extends to making decisions that could usefully be made in collaboration with peers or the team. Don’t worry, we know best, we’ll just tell you what the decision is.
At best, we come up with the right decision in a way that’s not helpful for building relationships across teams, or for developing team member skills within our team. More likely, we don’t know all the information or have all the perspectives that we’d benefit from in making the decision, and so we make a decision that could have been better.
Fernandez and Velasquez describe with examples why that approach doesn’t work well, and gives a plan for attack of using the decision that has to be made as a way of developing our collaboration skills:
Determine and face why you make decisions in isolation, and what that’s about
Figure out how you want to use this upcoming decision, besides the decision itself - to learn new perspectives, to develop peer collaboration, to grow decision making capability in your team…
Take action by seeking different perspectives, change your position into an option amongst possible others, engage the team.
Technical and Project Leadership
Elizabeth Harrin at Rebels Guide to Project Management has a good list of free and low cost project management resources, as well as a description of how to do a speed run of the Coursera Google Project Management Certificate.
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,