November 14, 2019.
Early in your career, the majority of problems you work on are difficult because they are new for you. You’ve never done it before, and it’s challenging to do good work on problems you’ve never encountered before. However, the good news is that there are other folks on your team who’ve done it before and are already experienced with its in’s and out’s.
Even for garden-variety challenges, it’s easy to spend a disproportionate amount of energy trying to work through the problem before asking for help. Working hard is a platitudinal virtue, but the true virtue is learning well. The important outcome is becoming adept at the task, suffering along the way is optional.
I once interviewed at a company that gave new hires an explicit tool to navigate persevere/learn tradeoffs, the “twenty-forty rule.” Always spend at least twenty minutes trying to solve a problem before asking for help, and never spend more than forty minutes before asking for help. I doubt these numbers are perfectly tuned for your team, but together they’re an effective mechanism to give explicit permission to ask your teammates for help, while also setting the expectation that you’ll spend time helping others.
The approach of working harder to overcome problems mostly works though, when you or someone else is managing the flow of your incoming work. Earlier in your career, your manager or a senior peer will be helping you manage the number of features or tickets you take on each sprint.
As you get more senior, you’ll increasingly be exposed to the unfiltered demands of “the business.” In a slow growing company, the increase is typically slow enough that working harder will keep up with additional work if relieved by occasional hiring.
In faster growing companies or teams, though, working harder quickly becomes a self-defeating strategy. Not only will you become too busy to teach your teammates, you’ll become too busy to learn. This leads you into a downward spiral: you fall further behind the harder you work, eventually burning out.
When you’re overwhelmed by a complex problem, the sort where no one has enough context or perspective to solve it for you, the only solution is to create slow spaces to think. You learn through reflection, especially when it comes to the most complicated problems, and you have to fight your instinct to outwork these challenges.
So that’s the key advice here: if you’re in a rapidly changing, complicated situation – slow down! Stop working harder. There’s no door in that direction. You’ll never outwork deep problems, and that path is gilded with false progress, appearing to work but never getting you where you’re trying to go. (Similar to my argument against follow the sun on-call rotations.)
As a final thought for folks who are managing someone who is trying to outwork a complex problem: help them pause, regroup, create a slow space for thinking, and grow to overcome! There’ll be new challenges soon, so save energy for the way back.