/ software

Problem Solving vs. Passing Through

It's a fine line for a lot of people, you get to be a manager and it sort of pushes you further away from the work, a few years go by and the time you had previously invested in staying up to date with the latest changes in languages, tools, etc., is now spent working with your team, or on manager problems. You can't contribute in the same way you used to.

One of the most difficult challenges a manager faces is to figure out how to maintain the contribution that got you to this new management role. Where do you solve problems, where to you make it easier for others to solve problems, and how do you avoid just being a bottleneck or a pass through.

First let's start with some assumptions. Any problem complex and interesting enough to not just be solved by the first individual who picks up the task is likely to provide an opportunity for multiple people to contribute. The best cultures tend to be ones where there is room for multiple types of contributions to find their way into solutions. But as a manager you need to ask yourself, what contribution can I provide that is valuable.

Where this goes wrong for a lot of people is thinking that the contribution you need to make as a manager is the same as it was before as the individual contributor, or that you can't make a contribution at all. The truth is almost always something in between.

Two types of managers you don't want to be:

  1. A new challenge emerges, and only you can solve it. Your team watches with baited breath, bursting into applause when you slay the dragon.
  2. A new challenge comes up, and you look at it, and you forward it to Kim with a note that says "can you do this today?"

In both these scenarios you really aren't doing what your team needs. In the first scenario you are trying to do too much, taking opportunity away from your team, and in the second you are doing too little, not really contributing much beyond a pass through.

Instead, look to your team, what do they need, where can you help. A good manager could help solve this problem in several ways, tailored to the needs of the team. If you first acknowledge that you are not going to be the one doing it, a whole series of contributions become possible. Perhaps you can connect the two people on the team that have worked on similar problems, or get a product manager to add a little more context.

Too often however, managers get the message that they shouldn't be doing any more, so they simply become routers and pass work through. This kind of behavior isn't actually supportive, because your value isn't assigning things to people, it's helping create valuable things. A good manager can add valuable momentum to every effort, with every touch. Those contributions can be small, but over time and large volumes they will add up. When you simply pass through you are actually taking momentum at each touch. Understand your contribution, and how it supports your team; making their lives easier without taking anything from them.