Notice how this line of questioning never makes a promise to build the thing. It just takes their desire for the thing as the starting point for a larger conversation.
In this episode, Richard and Peter discuss how to work with stakeholders who always bring solution requests, like detailed requirements or technical specifications. How can you have an effective conversation to identify the underlying problem so you can collaborate with your team to solve the problem well?
Certified Scrum Product Owner Workshop (virtual, instructor-led)
Advanced Certified Scrum Product Owner Program (virtual, instructor-led)
2-Week Backlog Makeover (online, self-guided)
80/20 Product Ownership (online, self-guided)
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Welcome to the Humanizing Work mailbag, where we answer questions from the Humanizing Work community.
Today we’re looking at some common ways to mess things up as a new manager and what to do instead. If you’re feeling stuck on something, whether that’s trying to take a more human-centric approach to your work, trying to make your product or business outcomes better, or if you’ve just got a more tactical process-related question, let us know about it. Send us an email at Mailbag@humanizingwork.com, with a few details about the situation and we’ll share how we might think through your challenge, right here on the Humanizing Work Show.
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On to this week’s mailbag question: The question is, “I just got promoted from developer to development manager, and I want to do my new role well. What should I be thinking about? What should I avoid?”
I love this question. So many people, including myself, learn the hard way—if they learn at all—that management is almost completely a different job from the individual contributor job we were so good at, that got us promoted in the first place. And, too often, the manager of the new manager either isn’t consciously aware of this difference or doesn’t really know how to teach it.
This question has been sitting in the mailbag queue for a little while, but it just came to mind for me again as one of my sons recently got promoted into his first management role and asked me almost exactly the same question.
I think most leaders have lived some variation on this. You’re good at software development. Maybe you show some kernels of natural leadership ability like helping other, more junior team members. So, you get promoted into the development manager role. Which is almost an entirely different job.
That’s almost exactly what happened to me.
Since the original question is from a software developer turned manager of software developers, we’ll use that context to be concrete in this episode. But it applies to pretty much any move from individual contributor to manager. My son, for example, was good at valet parking cars and driving the parking shuttle at his downtown office building parking operation, so he got promoted, pretty quickly, to a manager of the parking operation. And now his role is lots more than driving and parking; just like the software manager is doing things other than software development.
Whatever the domain, there are three common ways for the new manager to mess things up at this point.
One is to end up continuing to do the individual contributor work. Maybe you just take the most difficult tasks or the most important decisions, but you’re still basically a developer. This has two big problems:
- You’re not helping other people on the team level up. In fact, you might even be holding them down by keeping the most challenging tasks and the most important decisions. This limits your team’s effectiveness and limits individual team members’ growth.
- If there are unique contributions to be made by a manager that are distinct from the individual contributor role, and we think they are, and you’re spending time on individual contributor work, even if it’s important work, there’s an opportunity cost. There are those management tasks that just don’t get done.
So, if continuing to do the individual contributor work is one way to mess things up, a second common way that we see to mess things up is to start directing the work. Telling people what to do and how to do it. After all, you got promoted because you were good at doing the work, so you must know best how to do it.
This has some of the same problems as doing the work yourself, but it adds a morale problem. When we ask groups what motivates them and what demotivates them, the single most common demotivator is micromanagement. It comes up in every class where we talk about motivation. Autonomy is one of the main motivation factors—people want to feel like they have some amount of control over their work. And when it feels like someone else is taking control of something I should have control over, my motivation drops.
Directing the work is not a good way to add value as a manager.
The third common way to mess things up as a new manager is to just go hands-off. Sometimes this is from a desire to avoid infringing on the team’s autonomy by getting too deep into the work. Sometimes it’s more about not wanting to seem like you think of yourself as better or more important or sometimes just feeling uncomfortable having more power and authority, or even not knowing what to do with it.
The hands-off manager mostly does open-ended meetings and administrative work. Maybe schedule some 1-on-1s to check on everybody–try to be vaguely helpful and supportive for the team. But they’re not adding value in any clear and concrete way. There’s a big missed opportunity here because a manager really does have valuable expertise and important and unique things to do.
We notice that some new managers oscillate between these approaches. They try to stay hands-off and out of the details of the work. And then something goes wrong, at which point they kind of swoop in and start doing or directing the work.
We’ve talked about some things for the new manager to avoid. But, on the positive side, what should they do instead? How do we actually answer the question of “What should I do as a new manager?”
In our view, managers (or leaders more broadly, regardless of job title) have three jobs:
- Create Clarity
- Increase Capability
- Improve the System
The more senior the manager, the broader the scope of those 3 jobs, all the way up to a CEO doing them at the whole company level. But it’s the same 3 jobs.
Good management, and good leadership more broadly, multiplies the impact of a group of people because it aligns them in the same direction, it increases their capability, and it cultivates systems that make it easier to be more effective.
Doing the work doesn’t have this multiplying effect. Directing the work doesn’t have this effect. Abdicating your responsibility certainly doesn’t have this effect. Good leadership– good management– is an active, engaged role.
So, for the new manager, going a little deeper:
Job #1: means asking, “How do I create more clarity for my team? Do they know what we’re trying to accomplish? Are they aligned on what success looks like? Do they know why the work matters?” Etc.
Job #2: How can I increase my team’s capability to accomplish our mission? That might mean asking what training they need? Or what additional resources would help them do their jobs better? Do we need to hire more team members? What distractions or risks threaten our mission, and how can I protect the team from them?
Job #3: How can I improve my team’s system of work? Are career paths clear and accessible? Is decision making authority configured well and clear to everyone? Do we have the right team structure? Is the right information available to the right people at the right time? Are workflows clear and smooth?
Even if some of these things get delegated—like on a Scrum team, where a good Product Owner has a good chunk of the Create Clarity job—it’s often still good for the manager to look at the health of that job and see if they need to contribute in some way.
If you’re a manager, you can download our 3 Jobs graphic from the show notes and look through the different focus areas. Consider how healthy that area is for your team and whether you can do something to make it healthier. For some of them, you may be able to move the needle there on your own. For others, you may need to enlist the help of a more senior leader or of another group.
You may also find it useful to think about what you find yourself doing that doesn’t fit into any of the focus areas on the 3 Jobs graphic. Odds are, most of those things that don’t fall into the three jobs categories are some flavor of doing the work or directing the work. Then consider how you could delegate those tasks or make them unnecessary by doing the 3 Jobs better.
Now, we should point out that it’s possible that you actually have a hybrid role, like my son does in his role: part-time manager and part-time individual contributor. In that case, the move is to be clear about when you’re acting in one role vs the other. Keep your manager time focused on the 3 Jobs. And because your time is limited, use the 3 Jobs focus areas as a filter for how you spend your time to produce the biggest impact.
If you want to learn more about our 3 Jobs model and how it can clarify your work as a leader, we’ll drop a link in the show notes to a waitlist for our half-day 3 Jobs workshop where we go into much more detail about these. Or you can contact us to learn about scheduling a 3 Jobs workshop for leaders in your organization.
Finally, as we wrap up, I want to break from our usual call to action for this episode. We get a steady trickle of mailbag questions like this one, which we appreciate. But looking at the stats, we’ve never heard from most of our listeners and we get almost no interaction with most episodes. To be honest, it often feels like we’re just spending a few hours every week throwing this content out into the void. And no idea what happens.
So, we’d love to hear from you. Whether you’re new to the show or you’ve been listening for a while, would you be willing to shoot us a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org? Introduce yourself. Tell us what you’ve found useful on the show. Tell us what you’d like to hear us talk about more. Maybe share a challenge you’re facing in your work that would benefit from the Humanizing Work Show perspective.
It would mean a lot to us to hear from our listeners, and it would help us make the show more valuable in the future. Thanks for doing that! And thanks for tuning in this week.