A week by week plan for starting to manage a new team

I’m starting at a new company on Monday so I’ve been panic-reading management and leadership books. I’ve boiled a lot of that advice down into this week by week plan.

Important caveat: “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” and all that. Stay flexible, shift things around as needed, don’t hold off on something that needs to happen just because it’s not in the plan, blah blah blah.

Week 1: Find someone, anyone, and grab a 30 minute call with them. Here’s the agenda (stolen from this post):

  • “Tell me everything you think I should know.” – 25 minutes
  • “What are the biggest challenges the team has right now?” – 3 minutes
  • “Who else should I talk to?” – 2 minutes

Next, repeat that process with all of the names you get from that last question, and keep repeating with every name you get until you run out of new names. That should get you a nice jump start on knowledge transfer. You may even find a few easy problems to solve for quick wins.

Weeks 1-3: Listen in on regular meetings and ask lots of questions. Don’t shy away from asking for clarification on things asynchronously after the meeting is over. And remember, be warm, not impressive.

Don’t start 1-1s yet, and don’t try to do anything useful. Your goal for weeks 1-3 is to meet as many people as you can and learn as much as you can.

Also, sometime in weeks 1-3, start asking about any shared measurable goals for the team. How do you know if you’re succeeding? How is your impact being measured? Do those measures exist? If they don’t exist, then we’ll come back to this in a few weeks.

Week 3: Send an email or a group chat message about starting 1-1s and list some available times so that people can choose the times that are best for them. Mention the format you plan to use so they can prep.

Week 4: Start having weekly 1-1s. You won’t be giving any feedback in these 1-1s (or elsewhere) for a few more weeks. So for now your job is to get to know your directs and to support them however they need.

Week 8: If the team already has measurable goals related to impact and business outcomes, then skip this step. Otherwise, now is the time to start figuring out what those goals should be. I talked about this in “The 2 responsibilities of a manager.”

Week 12: Now that you have 3 months under your belt, fill out the assessment at the end of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. That should give you a sense of which, if any, dysfunctions to focus on.

Also, start giving positive feedback. Send an email or group message letting people know that you’re going to start this, and tell them about the format it’ll follow.

Weeks 12-20: Give only positive feedback, early and often. To start, aim to give 1 piece of positive feedback to someone everyday, then increase it from there. Build up to a steady stream.

Week 20: Now that you hopefully have earned some trust, you can start also giving negative feedback. Let your reports know ahead of time that it’s coming so they won’t be caught off guard. And remember, don’t debate the past.

Week 30: By now you’ve been giving feedback for a while, so you should have a good sense of where to add more formal coaching. Set goals with your reports and talk through a granular step by step plan for achieving it.

And just like that, you’re more than half a year in. You’re on your own from here. Good luck!

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The “You Get One Diagram” approach to architecture documents

I’ve spent too many hours writing pages and pages of architecture docs that nobody ever read.

I’ve joined too many projects with gigantic architecture docs that were outdated and useless.

I’ve seen too many architecture docs that were mind-numbing prose descriptions of what should have been a diagram.

I’m sick of it. My rule nowadays is that each team gets one diagram. That’s the architecture doc. It can be as complex as it needs to be, but there can only be one per team.

Why a diagram?

  • A picture is worth a thousand words. Never has that been more true than with architecture docs.
  • Nobody wants to sit there and read dozens of pages of prose when they could look at a diagram instead.
  • Maintaining all those pages of text is a nightmare as little things change gradually over time.

Why only one?

  • The chance of outdated info increases exponentially with the number of diagrams, rather than proportionally.
  • Eventually two “unrelated” things will need a connection between them that we didn’t foresee.
  • Onboarding and planning are easier when we can visualize everything in one place.

You get one diagram. Use it well.

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We become what we are told we are

Clifford Stott is famous for decreasing European football hooliganism and rioting. He trained the police on “low-profile, nonaggressive tactics” and said to “leave the riot gear behind.” It worked. Turns out, when hooligans aren’t treated like hooligans, they stop acting like hooligans.

Thinking about my toughest clients, my most abrasive coworkers, my misbehaving kids, and my drama-filled family members, I wonder how much of that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I thought they were that way, so I treated them that way, so they acted that way.

We become what we are told we are.

Fredrik Backman, Beartown

Extreme Ownership has a fantastic chapter called “Leading Up and Down The Chain”. It explains that whenever anyone is acting a fool, you have to ask yourself what you are doing wrong to cause that.

If your boss is being a jerk, assume for a second that’s your fault. What are you doing that’s making her lash out? What are you not giving her that she needs? Are you expecting her to be a jerk and letting that tarnish your interaction with her? “We become what we are told we are.”

Lots of parenting books talk about breaking a cycle that isn’t working. Say my kid resists doing his homework, and every night is a battle about it that ends with yelling and tears. That’s a cycle that isn’t working. I can keep trudging up that terrible hill, or I can break the cycle. Maybe failing with abandon is the answer for once. Maybe if I treat him like a kid who does his homework willingly, then he’ll become that kid. “We become what we are told we are.”

This all boils down to the cliche that we should take the charitable stance. But that’s a tough rule to follow in the moment. Instead, try this: treat everyone like the person you want them to be, rather than the person you think they are.

(And if you’re sure it won’t work with that one toxic person you have in mind, pitch it as an experiment since that way you can’t fail!)

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Never underestimate people’s ability to not hear you

The writing is on the wall for Susan, and it has been for months. She’s struggling to get her work done. She’s grumpy most of the time. Nobody likes working with her.

You’ve tried your best with her. You really have. You’ve given her feedback and more feedback and some more feedback. But when you run out of options and you have to let her go, she’s somehow surprised. The heck?!

You underestimated her ability to not hear you. She listened to the words but didn’t comprehend the seriousness. She got the message but she didn’t get the message.

I’ve learned this lesson over and over, and it hurts every time. People have an endless capacity to not really hear me. And this isn’t their fault, it’s mine. I need to tell them better, and more often.

Anytime I’m asking someone to do anything, especially if I’m asking them to change, I should assume that they won’t hear me like I want them to. And the human urge to be polite compounds the problem. If they can’t hear me when I think I’m being clear as day, I’m even more screwed if I’m sticking to hinting or nudging.

Ever heard of Hanlon’s razor, which says “never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence”? How about this:

Never attribute to apathy that which can be adequately explained by deafness.

Critter’s razor

With job performance, we “solve” this with PIPs (performance improvement plans) and annual performance reviews with a grading system. They convey that someone is in trouble in a way that is harder for them to not hear.

But it’s not only a job performance issue, it’s a human nature issue. I must always be twice as clear as seems necessary when I’m giving feedback. Clear is kind and unclear is unkind, and if I’m not being heard then I’m not being clear.

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That coworker who just wants to code

(This is a sequel to “That coworker who never stops refactoring“).

Steve is productive as hell. He writes solid code and gets crap done. He knows the codebase better than anyone. He’s even a skilled teacher, as long as the topic is the code.

But Steve doesn’t give a crap about improving process or jelling or planning or anything else that isn’t writing code. He thinks retros and stand-ups and sprint planning are a waste of his time, and he multitasks during all of them. He wants to be left alone to do his job.

Steve is a bad apple.

If you manage Steve, fire him. I don’t care how valuable you think he is.

If you work alongside Steve, give him and his manager lots and lots of feedback.

If you are Steve, get your crap together. You’re killing your team.

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Future-focused feedback

In yesterday’s post on rapid feedback, I skipped over one fascinating tip from the book The Effective Manager.

You know how people tend to get defensive when you give them negative feedback? And then you’re stuck debating for half an hour about what actually happened and why? I always thought that discussion was an important part of giving feedback, but I was wrong.

The book argues that the purpose of feedback is to encourage effective future behavior, and that arguing about the past is irrelevant to that purpose.

We recommend that you give in when a direct argues or gets defensive. Don’t get drawn into a discussion about what happened. That’s unrelated to the future you want to focus on.

Once you’ve given the feedback and the direct has pushed back, pause, smile, apologize, and walk away. You’ve made your point. Don’t let the direct try to win her argument simply because you’ve shown her the courtesy of letting go.

Remember again what this all boils down to: does the direct change her behavior in the future? She’s much more likely to do so if you avoid the arguments she’s trying to put in the path of an effective conversation.

Fascinating, no? When the person gets defensive, you give in and walk away?! Yes, because they’re defensive about the past. Your purpose is to encourage effective future behavior, and you did that. So why argue about something you can’t change? Bow out and let the person “win” the argument. They’ll still remember your feedback next time.

This is totally backwards from how I’ve always thought about feedback, but it feels freeing. I can give feedback in 5-15 seconds and I don’t even need to debate the past?! Talk about a double whammy for encouraging feedback culture.

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5 second feedback

The book The Effective Manager says you only need 5 to 15 seconds to deliver effective feedback. Here are the 4 steps:

  1. Ask (“Can I give you some feedback?”)
  2. State the behavior (“When you X…”)
  3. State the impact (“…the result is Y.”)
  4. Encourage effective future behavior (“Keep it up!” for positive feedback or “Can you change that?” for negative feedback)

Those steps should be followed whether you’re giving positive or negative feedback.

Here’s an example, pasted from the book:

Manager: Can I give you some feedback?
Direct: Sure, boss.
Manager: When you tell my boss bad news before me, even with the best of intentions, I end up getting in a lot of trouble for not knowing before he did. Can you try to tell me first, going forward?

Boom, done in seconds. (And if you’re thinking “but it’ll take much longer when you account for the inevitable debate about what actually happened!” then there’s an answer for that too.)

The beautiful thing about this rapid feedback is the frequency that it allows. When it only takes a few seconds, why not give feedback every day? Why not 5 times a day? It lowers the threshold of what is worthy of feedback.

One caveat: the book has a 3 question test you have to ask yourself before you can deliver the feedback:

  1. Are you angry? If so, don’t give the feedback.
  2. Are you focused on the past instead of the future (i.e., reminding them about something they did wrong or punishing them)? If so, don’t give the feedback.
  3. Are you able to let it go? If not, don’t give the feedback. In other words, if you can’t let it go in terms of how you feel, you should let it go by not giving negative feedback. If you feel an urge to deliver feedback, you’re probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

If you’re not angry, if it’s not about the past or about punishment, and if you can let it go, then go ahead and give the feedback.

There you have it. 5 second feedback. Lower the threshold for what’s feedback-worthy and delivery a steady stream of rapid feedback every day.

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The problem with “HELL YEAH or no”

Derek Sivers famously uses the “HELL YEAH or no” rule to decide what’s worth doing:

If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “no”.

When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!” — then say “no.”

When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!”

Derek Sivers

My stress level has plummeted since I started using this rule, but I’ve found a problem. Sometimes the thing keeping it from being a HELL YEAH is fear. Fear of failing, fear of embarrassing myself, fear of awkwardness, fear of people not liking me, fear fear fear.

I can’t feel that HELL YEAH feeling if I’m scared, but I can’t let fear be the reason I say no.

So I’ve altered the rule. Now, if the answer to “do you want to do this?” is not HELL YEAH, then I have to ask myself a second question: “will this make you grow?” If the answer to that is a HELL YEAH, then I need to say yes.

That has helped me avoid avoiding and chase growth rather than happiness.

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Intense intervention or acceptance. Pick one.

Dear future me,

So you’ve got a problem, yeah?

If it’s really a problem, then attack it with the force of a thousand suns. If you’re not willing to do that, then it’s not a problem.

Intense intervention or acceptance, those are your options. Pick one, right now.

Sincerely, past me.


Death to small talk

Most human interaction is a combination of canned responses.

Does anyone enjoy small talk? Are there people who look forward to talking about the weather and asking about each other’s weekend plans? Why is that the default?

Everyone appreciates an authentic moment. A chance to really see another person…does it get any better than that? So why is it so hard to be authentic? Why does society expect us to waste so many words talking on-script?

We appreciate authenticity, but we’re scared to show it ourselves. How can we break past this cognitive dissonance?

A lot of my lifelong incorrect belief that I was an introvert boils down to the fact that I hate small talk. I suck at it, first of all. And it’s boring. I assumed that my hatred of small talk meant that I was an introvert. It didn’t occur to me until recently that small talk is not required.

So lately, I’ve been experimenting with skipping past small talk and diving right into big talk. A few examples:

  • In a casual work chat, after saying hi, I skipped the next 10 minutes of canned small talk. I jumped straight into a tough question about how he has stayed sane in the same role (CEO) for 20 years, with no boss and no growth path. He rolled with it without missing a beat. We went deep for 30 minutes on what it means to have a boss and how there are different types of growth. It was amazing.
  • A neighbor and I ended up at the same spot at the same time. I knew that she was taking a break from her teaching job during the pandemic. So after saying hi, I asked her if she’s been missing teaching and the meaning that brings to her days. She lit up and I got to know her in a way that 7+ years of neighborly chit chat has never allowed.
  • A relative was at our house a last week. Usually, we’d chat for only a couple minutes about surface level “how’s work going?” type stuff. This time, I asked him why he has stayed with the same company for 40 years and if he’s ever wanted to leave. He was so excited to tell me about his career and why he’s avoided managerial roles and why he’s considering leaving now after all this time. This is a guy I’ve seen weekly for 15 years, and we had never made it past the canned interactions until now.

Powerful things are happening in my life when I go off-script. I’m finally seeing people authentically that I’ve “known” for years.

I wish I had realized decades ago that small talk is not only optional, but toxic.

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