Identify your controls.

July 21, 2018. Filed under management 128

When I transitioned from supporting teams directly to instead partnering their managers, I struggled to remain effective without understanding their day to day work. My first instincts were to retain the same fidelity of context over a much wider area, and for the folks working with me this was probably indistinguishable from micromanagement. Maybe it even was micromanagement.

Thanks to a great deal of feedback and reflection, I've gotten more deliberate at identifying where to engage and where to hang back, a process that I call identifying your controls.

Controls are the mechanisms you use to align with other leaders you work with, and can range from defining metrics to sprint planning (although I wouldn't recommend the later). There is no universal set of controls–depending on the size of team and your relationships with its leaders, you'll want to mix and match–but the controls structure itself is universally applicable.

Some of the most common controls that I've seen and used are:

  • Metrics align on outcomes while leaving flexibility around how the outcomes are achieved.
  • Visions ensure you agree on long-term direction while preserving short-term flexibility.
  • Strategies confirm you have a shared understanding of the current constraints and how to address them.
  • Organization design allows you to coordinate the evolution of a wider organization within the context of sub-organizations.
  • Headcount & transfers are the ultimate form of prioritization, and a good forum for validating organizational prioritizes align across individual teams.
  • Roadmaps align on problem selection and solution validation.
  • Performance reviews coordinate culture and recognition.
  • Etc. There are an infinite number of other possibilities, many of which are particular to your company's particular meetings and forums. Start with this list, but don't stick to it!

For whatever set of controls you pick, the second step is to agree on the degree of alignment for each one. Some of the levels that I've found useful are:

  • I'll do it. Stuff that I will personally be responsible for doing. When you're going to do something, it's better to be explicit and avoid confusion on responsibilities. Best used sparingly.
  • Preview. I'd like to be involved early and often, probably this is an area where we aren't quite on the same page, and this helps us avoid redoing work.
  • Review. I'd like to weigh in before it gets published or fully rolled out., but we're pretty aligned on the topic.
  • Notes. Projects where I'd like to follow along, but where I don't have much to add. Often used for wide-reaching initiatives where we are well aligned, and I want to be able to represent your work correctly.
  • No surprises. Stuff that we're aligned on but where I want to keep my mental model intact. If I'm asked about a related problem, I want to be able to answer it correctly. This is particularly important for me, as my effectiveness is evaluated on being on top of new problems.
  • Let me know. We're well aligned on this, you've done it before and done it well. Let me know if something comes up that I can help with, otherwise I'm totally confident it'll go well, so we don't need to talk about this much.

Combine your controls and the degree of alignment for each, and you've established the interface between you and the folks you support. This reduces the ambiguity on how you work together and allows everyone to focus. It's useful for agreeing on performance goals, and also very useful for exposing alignment gaps between you and folks you work with (for example, if you want to preview every bit of someone's work it's a worrisome sign unless you just started working together).

Finally, this is a useful diagnostic for you as a leader to identify if you are micromanaging. If you simply can't imagine a world where you don't preview everyone's work, it's probably time to reflect a bit on what's holding you back from letting the team thrive.