On Knowing Enough to be Dangerous

Nothing is more dangerous than a manager who thinks she can do the work of the team. You would think that the more a manager knows about the work her team does, the better. It does have certain advantages, but as with all great powers, it comes with great responsibility.

When knowledge makes you dangerous

When you are making the transition from a maker to a manager you will initially have most of the skills needed to do the actual work, but don’t fool yourself. These skills will quickly fade, because this is no longer — and should no longer be— your focus. What makes you dangerous is that suddenly you are in a position where people outside the team will turn to you with questions like:

  • “So, what’s the plan?” (meaning “What’s the solution?”)
  • “What’s the scope?” (meaning “What corners can we cut?”)
  • “What resources do you need?” (meaning “Who should work on it?”)
  • “What’s the timeframe?” (meaning “When are you done?”)

It’s tempting to answer these questions straight away when you feel like you know enough to give a reasonable answer. Don’t. Instead, turn to your team. It’s their job to come up with solutions, figure out which corners to cut and decide how much time will be needed. Your job is to make sure they have everything they need to create the best possible solutions.

When you jump right in with your solution, you anchor the conversation on your first idea. The chance that your team can think of something better is very high, but by anchoring the conversation on a specific solution, you limit everyone’s thinking tremendously. You also set some very specific expectations to the solution before your team even has a chance to work on it. Chances are they will spend quite a bit of time exploring your idea before determining it is unworkable. At that point it will be up to them to try to free up their imagination so they can uncover a solution that works. It’s a slow and unnecessarily-frustrating process for all.

Be the best manager you can be

When you make the transition from making to managing, embrace the fact that you are now working with people, skills and potential. You are succesful when your team is succesful. Domain knowledge can be a great advantage to you if you use it wisely. Here’s how:

  • Accept that you don’t know enough to be anything other than dangerous.
  • Set the priority and create focus on the important things.
  • Ask relevant and insightful questions to help your team reflect on their accomplishments and setbacks.
  • Listen and use your knowledge to understand the problems in depth. Then make thoughtful and pragmatic decisions.
  • Support optimizations in workflow and processes.
  • Appreciate the hard work of your team, as well as all the invisible plumbing behind it. You’ve been in the trenches yourself, so you know the pain.
  • Make it safe to make mistakes. You’ve made plenty yourself, so show your scars and take it lightly.

This is what I’ve learned by making the mistakes myself. Apologies to those who have put up with them over the years … and thanks! Feel free to share your stories in the comments.