Close out, solve or delegate.

March 29, 2018. Filed under management 127

Chatting with an engineering manager, they mentioned a low-grade, ambient anxiety around their impact, which they'd felt since moving into a role focused on supporting managers rather than leading a team directly. I think this resonates with everyone's transition to managing managers: it's an unsettling period when you lose access to what used to make you happy–partnering directly with a team–and haven't found new sources of self-worth in your work.

This isn't the only reason this transition is hard, it's also hard because a lot of your skills and habits stop working well. The skill that scales the worst is outworking your problems.

This is particularly frustrating, because your ability to put your head down and solve gritty, important problems was probably a big part of how you were promoted. Now it's the wrong answer to most of your problems. This isn't because it's bad behavior, just because it's too inefficient to accomplish the breadth and quantity of things you need to get done.

If you're sitting at the post-transition moment, detached from the work you loved, and with your instincts driving you into a pile of work you can't make a dent in, I have a tool that's been useful for me and might be useful for you!

For every problem that comes your way–an email asking for a decision, a production problem, a dispute around oncall, a request to transfer teams–you must pick one of three options:

  • Close out - close it out in a way such that this specific ask is entirely resolved. This means making a decision, and communicating it to all involved folks. Success is this particular task never coming back to you, and your goal is to finish this particular task as quickly and as permanently as possible.
  • Solve - design a solution such that you will won't need to spend time on this particular kind of ask again in the next six months. This is often designing norms or process, but depending on the kind of issue might be coaching an individual. With this option, your goal is to finish off an entire category of tasks.
  • Delegate - ideally this is redirect the ask to someone is responsible for that kind of work, but sometimes it is one-off. If you can't close out a task or solve it, your only other option is to delegate it to someone who either has the specialized skills to close/solve, or who can work in the system.

No matter what problem comes your way, you're not allowed to solve them any other way! Give it a try for a week, and see if it helps you navigate your role more effectively.