- What are you worried about? Why do you want this person or task supervised?
- How much time and effort will the recording and reporting cost the person being supervised?
- How much motivation and goodwill?
- Is the supervision actually going to happen the way you think? How much time and effort will reading the reports, checking the output, meeting with the person being supervised cost the supervisor?
- Who will supervise the supervisor?
- What other costs are there?
- Besides the supervisor knowing what’s going on, what positive things will come out of this?
Accountability is necessary, and supervision can be helpful… but a lot of the time it isn’t. And the cost of supervision is often far more than we think in terms of time, mental overhead and money.
If you can’t do it well, and if the benefits don’t significantly outweigh the costs, don’t do anything until you’ve found a better way.
No doubt about it: a sense of urgency helps us make get things happen and get stuff done.
The problems come when we’re urgent about the wrong things:
- We’re urgent as we approach big deadlines, but not about early thinking, or doing each of the little pieces that together make up the job;
- We’re urgent about handling the problems in front of us, but far less about fixing root causes;
- We’re urgent about about new projects or ‘initiatives’ (urgh), but not about running and maintaining the systems we’ve already got;
- We’re urgent about the crises other people bring to us – and so create crises of our own;
- We’re urgent about about one-off meetings and launch events, but not about the unglamorous rhythms of feedback and accountability;
- We’re urgent about financial targets and metrics for our impact (lag measures), but not about the day-to-day activities (lead measures) that make achieving them possible;
- We’re urgent about big events, birthday parties and anniversaries, but less about making sure that we spend enough good time with the people they’re about;
- We’re urgent about scribbling last minute notes a before a presentation, but not about connecting with the people we’re there to serve;
- We’re urgent about controlling our own workload, but not about helping our teams with theirs;
- We’re urgent about getting jobs ticked off, but not about improving communication and building skills;
- We’re urgent about work, and sometimes about exercise or leisure, but not about regular rest and reflection, and seeking peace.
Thanks to JG.
A particularly troublesome breed of little job are things left undone that hold up the work of other people – a decision that needs your input (or for you to decide), a design that needs your approval, feedback to your team from a key meeting, or a training you need to hold before your team starts a new project.
We usually want to empower our teams to make decisions and get on with things – but we’re also afraid of what happens if something gets rushed, or isn’t fully checked before being launched… and of course it’s important that we’re thoughtful in our answers to colleagues questions, and that we give their the attention it needs or deserves.
But however honourable our excuses, being a bottleneck causes all sorts of problems:
- It slows everyone down while they wait for you;
- Knowing that people are waiting for us doubles the burden of the mental overhead and nameless dread that the undone tasks often bring us anyway;
- It also creates frustration and emotional friction for team members who are waiting for us to get our act together and do what they need us to do – that is to say, the negative consequences of being
Some things that may help
- As JG suggested, getting these little jobs out of the way early in your day can make you feel lighter and more empowered as you get into the important stuff – although this can backfire if your answers generate emails with further questions;
- It’s often the case that the email you’ve been avoiding is a quick job after all;
- Finding the right people to join your team enables parallel processing in your organisation – removing yourself as the bottleneck;
- Helping your team become the right people is just as important. This will need training, which itself will need you to have…
- Clear, well formulated and well communicated principles and policy about what to do in certain situations – as simple as an FAQ list, or a blanket decision like allowing all staff to spend a certain amount to fix a customer’s problem without checking with anyone – can help your team do their good work without waiting for you, making it easier tomorrow for everyone;
- Recognising the problem, apologising and talking about bottlenecks – and asking for ideas to fix or mitigate them – is never a bad thing;
- Giving away authority is often the right thing to do, as long as (1) you share key principles clearly (see above); (2) you keep an eye on what’s going on; (3) doing so will take less time than doing the job yourself, even if at the cost of additional short-term effort; (4) the cost of failure isn’t catastrophic (really, it rarely is).
- It often comes down to trust – trusting that your colleagues can do it; trusting that their ‘good enough’ now is better than your ‘perfect’ later; trusting that the more you trust them and the more they get on with things, the better they’ll get.
- Go back and read the one about Who’s Got the Monkey.
A friend shared this great analogy* for how teams work at different project phases.
Early phase: Golfing Buddies (2-3 players)
In the early phase of a project you and a partner or two (if you have any!) do all the work. You do a lot of your work together with quite a lot of crossover, share tools, might carry each other’s golf bags. There’s camaraderie, little need for planning or job descriptions, and most things you face can be worked out informally as you go. You need to do the work of compensating for your weaknesses yourself.
Intermediate (small) phase: Basketball team (5+ players)
There are more players and each has a position and you start to benefit from specialisation but you interact a lot and in many ways are still basically interchangeable. Plans and strategy matter, but tactics are king. You’re fast and responsive.
Intermediate (large) phase: Rugby team** (15+ players)
The team is getting bigger. Everyone still plays together but there is definite specialisation and team members stop being able to cover each other’s positions. Communication and chains of command become increasingly important and plans become harder to change. Danger of silos and factions.
Mature (large) phase: American Football Team (40+ players***)
There is very deep specialisation and there are clear teams-within-the-team – whole sets of players can play in the same game but never play together. Planned plays and frequent stops for communication are the norm. Management and support structure becomes increasingly important – and expensive. Danger of suffocating bureaucracy.
*Results from Google (like this post on LeadStrategic) suggests that this analogy comes from Larry Osborne‘s Sticky Teams – Osborne also has ‘Track Star’ as a category for solo performers.
***I’ve been a bit fast and loose with the numbers on teams: basketball and rugby teams will have substitutes that take the number of players higher, and American football teams only field 11 players at a time, but have separate offensive, defensive and special teams that all play during different phases of the game.
The basic principle is that when you’re recruiting, you should be seeking to raise the average of your team, bringing in people who increase the level of energy, skill, and possibilities available – and who raise the bar in terms of commitment to your aims and values.
This is a helpful rule of thumb, but there are two problems with it:
- The more successful you are at raising your average, the harder it’s going to be to keep doing it.
- As you get better at what you do and grow as a team, it’s also going to get harder to find people who raise the average in what are presumably key areas.
So it’s inevitable that you’re going to lower some averages, some of the time, if you want your team to grow. It’s doubly inevitable if you’re seeking to build an organisation that increases the average, both internally (as individuals learn and grow and as the team works better together) and in the workforce (as people move on and take what they’ve learned to make a contribution elsewhere).
I think the answer is to make sure that you’re clear about which averages are non-negotiable, and which of the others are most important at a given time:
- Values and integrity
- Enthusiasm / energy
- Commitment to your vision
- Maturity – consideration and care for others
- Skill in a key area. This could be something you deliver, like training or a technical service you provide for your clients – or a support function like accounting or managing infrastructure.
- Readiness (and ability) to learn and grow
It’s worth being clear first about the non-negotiables of values and attitude (that is, character) – and the energy that you need a new team-member to bring to the team.
You also need to know which missing skills you’re seeking to add to your team from the outset, and whether you expect these to arrive fully formed (how will you tell?) or are going to help your new teammate acquire them (you need a training plan, and you need to make sure that you carry it out).
Beyond that, a lot depends on the stage of development of your team, and whether your priorities are growth into new areas (finding people to create possibilities and help you do things that you can’t already do), increasing capacity (adding people to help you do more of what you already do) or consolidation (adding people who will help you do what you already do better). It’s worth bearing in mind though, that the two types of growth create a need for consolidation, and consolidation creates the potential for growth.
Whether you’re improving your own work or helping others improve theirs,* it pays to spend time talking about who is responsible for what – and what you hope people will take responsibility for as they grow into their roles.
There are layers of responsibility.
1) Given all the necessary inputs…
Do you take responsibility for getting your job done?
2) If an input is missing…
- Do you shrug your shoulders and put down your tools?
- Or do you take responsibility for passing the problem to the relevant person – a colleague, supplier, manager?
- Do you take responsibility for chasing up the solution?
- If needed, will you work with the relevant person to make it easier for them to fix it?
- Will you give thought to whether this problem is likely to happen again – and think about what you can do on your side to fix it (by, say, allowing more time in your process)?
- Will you take responsibility for the breakdown in communication or process – by talking about it, asking for help, trying something new?
3) If the inputs are fine and the process is working…
- Will you ask how it could be done better?
- Will you think about whether you could entirely replace the process, or do away with it entirely?
4) Above and beyond the level of processes…
- Will you take responsibility not just for the defined outcomes of the process, but for what those outcomes are actually supposed to achieve?
- Will you set an example of excellence in the quality of your work…
- Including how you treat people while you do it, both in and outside your organisation?
- Will you take a degree of responsibility for other people do these things – that is, for setting and improving the culture?**
Basic competence in a defined task is just the start – taking that as given, members of your team become more valuable the further down this list they go.
There’s a world of difference between managing someone where you responsibility for their work, and working with someone who takes responsibility to make sure the right things get done in the right way – and helps you and others to do the same. Find more of those people.
*it’s usually best to think about both at once
**No-one likes a meddler, but most of the time most of us make the mistake of not taking enough responsibility for making things better.
This is a brilliant illustration from William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass about avoiding taking responsibility for other people’s problems.
Where Is the Monkey?
Let us imagine that a manager is walking down the hall and that he notices one of his subordinates, Jones, coming his way. When the two meet, Jones greets the manager with, “Good morning. By the way, we’ve got a problem. You see….” As Jones continues, the manager recognizes in this problem the two characteristics common to all the problems his subordinates gratuitously bring to his attention. Namely, the manager knows (a) enough to get involved, but (b) not enough to make the on-the-spot decision expected of him. Eventually, the manager says, “So glad you brought this up. I’m in a rush right now. Meanwhile, let me think about it, and I’ll let you know.” Then he and Jones part company.
Let us analyze what just happened. Before the two of them met, on whose back was the “monkey”? The subordinate’s. After they parted, on whose back was it? The manager’s. Subordinate-imposed time begins the moment a monkey successfully leaps from the back of a subordinate to the back of his or her superior and does not end until the monkey is returned to its proper owner for care and feeding. In accepting the monkey, the manager has voluntarily assumed a position subordinate to his subordinate. That is, he has allowed Jones to make him her subordinate by doing two things a subordinate is generally expected to do for a boss—the manager has accepted a responsibility from his subordinate, and the manager has promised her a progress report.
The subordinate, to make sure the manager does not miss this point, will later stick her head in the manager’s office and cheerily query, “How’s it coming?” (This is called supervision.)
William Oncken, Jr. and Donald L. Wass – Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? in the Harvard Business Review
If you’re up to your eyeballs, and your team isn’t getting the job done, it’s sometimes necessary to do the work yourself so that it gets done and done right.
Sometimes necessary. Always dangerous.
You’re taking work back – work that presumably you took time to spec and explain to someone else – but worse than that is taking the responsibility for getting things done.
Often you’ll find that if you explain whose job it is to get something done, point them to a resource or two, and step out – remove yourself from the picture – people find amazing ways to get things done.
Do whatever you can to make sure that whoever’s got the monkey keeps it.
If you’re asking someone to do something for you, an appropriate spec goes a long way.
A good spec saves everyone time and effort* and demonstrates that you value the work and other people’s time and energy.
You might include answers to the following questions:
- Big picture, what needs to happen?
- Why is it important – what will doing this thing achieve?
- What are the details that you need to specify? (Mainly focused on the outcome. This will vary depending on the task, the skills of the person doing the job and your relationship to them – i.e. what can you take on trust – but must include anything that would cause you to reject the product.)
- What are the details you don’t care much about? (Probably about the process.)
- What suggestions or resources can you provide?
- When should it finished by?
- Who is responsible for getting this thing done?
The last question is critical – it’s really easy to hand over a task and still have it be your responsibility. In which case you will be the one filling in the holes and chasing up last details, which defeated the point of getting help in the first place.
*Perhaps that should read “a good spec given to a competent person, where competence includes knowing how to read, follow and question the spec where needed.”