5 min read

No Touching

No Touching
Lets all respect the prison rules now

Sometimes I like to think that I'm a pretty good manager. You know, before the crushing imposter syndrome hits and I run away from the thought as quickly as possible.

But I don't know if I'm a good leader.

To me, good leadership means that the direction that you set does not require continuous effort to maintain. That you have created some sort of perpetual motion machine that continues to function long after you've stopped paying attention.

Don't get me wrong, I've definitely managed to accomplish some things as a manager, but I think that most of those things happened as a result of personal effort, persistence and direct interaction.

And I don't think that is a sustainable or scalable approach.

When Have You Seen Me Code?

I used to be an engineer. A software engineer specifically. Not one of those proper engineers who actually have to qualify for the title. All I really did was get a Bachelor of IT and then start calling myself an engineer because I made things.

Title ranting aside, in my early career I mostly accomplished things by doing them directly.

As I started to move towards being responsible for people, that pattern continued, though the skills involved changed dramatically. Not coding, obviously, no-one would trust me near the source code anymore, but system level things. Documenting process, configuring software installations, facilitating conversations and just generally keeping the machine running.

And it worked, at least as far as I can tell. Stuff got done, people were generally happy and life was good.

But, while the machine ran well when I was involved, it didn't scale. As I became responsible for more people, more teams and more things, I couldn't touch everything directly.

But that's the reality: you can't touch everything directly if you want to be responsible for solving big problems.

You need to be strategic.

There's Always Change In The Banana Stand

So, what do you do when you can't touch everything directly?

You create a magnetic field. Or a field of some sort, it doesn't have to be magnetic I suppose. I only defaulted to magnetic because I literally had this picture in my brain when I was thinking about it recently.

Thanks Science World! Also Google Image search obviously

I mean, look at the iron filings in that picture. It would take forever to manually arrange each one so that it was facing in the right direction. Hell, you might even knock something else out of place when you ham-handedly poke around in a well-intentioned attempt to make things better.

You need to create a field that operates at a different level. A field that makes it obvious what direction things should be facing.

Then you need to let it do the work for you and get out of its way.

I feel like this is a good analogy, so lets roll with it for a bit.

If the field is strong and consistent, then everyone and everything is aligned. People and teams are moving toward a set of common goals under their own power, being subtly influenced by the field on a moment by moment basis. It's the whole Pit of Success situation all over again.

If the field is weak and chaotic, then everyone and everything is just moving around randomly. Bumping into each other, fighting towards their own goals with little to no regard for the effect it might have on other people and teams. It's discordant and like taking a few steps backward, to the side, forward and up, all at the same time.

It's a great mental picture isn't it? I bet you feel like you've been in an organisation that has a weak field.

I know I have.

I've Got The Worst Brain

Unfortunately, I don't know how to make a magnetic field.

Well, not consciously anyway.

The best I've managed to do, is to create weak fields surrounding social things, like lunch time Mario Kart and afternoon D&D sessions, creating opportunities for people to make social connections that support professional interactions. Even then, I think the fields were a side effect of me deciding that I wanted to do something that required other people to be involved, as opposed to being intentional attempts to set up a long lasting pattern.

It seems to me like OKRs are probably a good mechanism to create a magnetic fields around whatever you deem is important. When used properly, you should be able to set and communicate a high-level objective and then give people the freedom to decide how they will contribute. The alignment happens automatically, no touching required.

But the memories I have of attempting to establish OKRs involve a lot of touching.

No, not like that.

I just remember having to put in a lot of effort trying to get everyone aligned and comfortable and interested and most importantly, to see the value of what OKRs could do for the company and for their day to day working lives.

And even in the face of that effort, the initiative died, and the nascent field sputtered out like some sort of electromagnet with its power source shut off.

Perhaps setting up a magnetic field requires a mass amount of effort and lots of touching until it becomes self sustaining?

But the core point I made at the start of this section still stands: I don't know how to do it for the big important things.

See? Things Have A Way Of Working Themselves Out

At the end of the day, I think it's the abstract nature of the thinking required to form a magnetic field that trips me up.

I can clearly envision a future state in my own head.

I can establish patterns that I think will lead towards that future state.

I can put immense amounts of personal effort into holding to those patterns.

But I do that by focusing on the details, and when things get vague, I get frustrated and stressed and confused and I don't know what to do.

It's a problem that I'm going to have to deal with though, because as my sphere of influence gets larger and larger, things get more and more vague and disconnected. Feedback loops get longer and it becomes increasingly hard to tell if something happened because of me, or if it was going to happen anyway and I just was just sort of...there.

Sometimes you just have to come to terms with the fact that you aren't going to understand the details. To understand every step on the path that leads to a glorious victory.

Sometimes you have to listen to the metaphorical prison guard when they scream "No Touching!".