It Takes a Village to Blow Your Nose

I heard this saying recently and although I chuckled, I also understood it more than I wish I did.  What does this statement mean to you?  Does your team behave like this?  Maybe this represents the managers of a team, ones who micro-manage.  Or a team that needs to ask permission to get things done due to over-demanding managers, fear, uncertainty, or insecurity in the team.  But where I think this statement holds true is on a team where the individual engineers are not empowered.  Empowerment is a huge aspect of successful teams and happy employees.  People need the challenge and freedom to make decisions, take actions, and consider taking risks in order to move the team and product forward.  Managers aren’t going to know everything about everything and they typically aren’t the experts.  We, as good managers, hire people to be the experts.  We play interference and deal with the items that would overly-burden engineers.  But managers who watch every move their teams make are over-burdened themselves.  Everyone on the team has a role and a set of responsibilities and being accountable for your actions is a responsibility everyone has.  If your management is watching you too closely, potentially you haven’t given them evidence to have confidence in your abilities and to allow you to work independently.

But the “village” isn’t just your manager or management team, it could be the whole engineering team.  Why would everyone on the team need to know everything about everyone’s work?  Distrust or lack of confidence in each person’s ability to do their jobs, and maybe even they just don’t have enough work to do themselves!  In some cases, this could have been started by the idea of needing visibility, but then over time perhaps the team took this a bit too far.  We don’t need that much visibility or transparency to be successful.
If your team works in this way, it’s going to be difficult to break this culture.  First you should look back through the history of the team to see if there was some key issues in the past the caused the team to start acting this way.  Potentially, a project went south and got cancelled and many people got blamed for it.  Maybe smaller sub-teams within the larger team started competing or distrusting each other which over time turned into over-monitoring of all peoples’ actions.  Or your team has too many dependencies to ever be successful in shipping products because one dependency is always going to drop the ball, so this culture of watching everything and approving every single action was put in place.

No matter what the reason, the first way to fix this problem is to call it out as it occurs.  When I first became a lead, I was new to my team, and my manager was also new at being a manager of managers.  In addition, I wasn’t in the same location where he and the rest of the team were sitting so my visibility was limited.  As the weeks went by, although I knew I was doing my job, doing it well, and was severely busy, he didn’t know this and although emails went out regularly, it wasn’t enough.  Over time, his requests for information from me continued to grow and grow until it got to a point where I felt like I was spending more time giving status and getting approval to move forward on things than actually doing the work at hand.  On top of that, my part of the team was new and there were many issues that I was trying to solve but that continued to get escalated.  So his requests for information were justified, but at the same time, the requests were not helpful in solving the problems.  My focus on these issues would solve them, not spending my time sending information and asking for approval.  Eventually, this came to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore.  When I met with him, I challenged him on whether or not he trusted me, whether he thought I was doing the right things, and what his intentions where in asking for so much information (and how it was impacting me).  This was a great discussion and a turning point in our relationship.  He realized, as a new manager of managers, that he had to let go and give me some authority to drive items without his knowledge of every step.  And he realized that he had to empower me to make decisions, take action, and show results.  Overall, this got better and better and his trust in my ability grew.  It grew so much that years later he was the boss that promoted me from a test lead to a test manager. 

So the lesson learned is that if it takes a ton of approval to get simple things done within your team, challenge those that are asking for this approval process or for the details.  Probably there are other underlying issues causing this culture.  It could be distrust or it could just be a lack of awareness that these requests are impacting you so much.  So communicate your concerns and over time you may see a change.  You shouldn't need to involve the whole team in order to get simple tasks done.  It shouldn't take a village for you to blow your nose.