If you’re repeating yourself, debug it

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Managing managers

This article is part of a series on managing managers.

Myself and Rebecca are sitting down to dinner. She asks me a question.

“Were you doing lots of one-to-ones today?”

“Yeah, why’d you ask?”

“Do you realize that you pretty much said the same thing over and over again, all day?”

“Huh. I had no idea. No wonder I feel so tired…”

Do you ever feel like you’re repeating yourself? You probably are.

Whether you’re managing one team or multiple teams, part of your job is gathering and distributing information. You likely have unique access into what is going on – and what is coming up – in the rest of the department and company, therefore it is your duty to ensure that others are continually informed.

However, without conscious effort, your communication efforts can be drastically inefficient, and you may not even realize.

Since we tend to use our one-to-one meetings with our staff as our primary way of discussing in-depth topics, we as managers can find ourselves using those meetings to additionally broadcast useful information. 

For example, you might want to update people about the roadmap planning that is underway for next year, or perhaps share the latest status of the budget and what that may mean for hiring new staff.

After all, it seems reasonable to batch this up into your weekly one-to-one meetings and then to deliver that information face-to-face, physically or virtually. It’s a nice personal touch, right? Well, maybe. But you might be using your time ineffectively. And you won’t ever get that time back.

You wouldn’t do it in code

If you found yourself repeating a laborious manual technical task again and again, you’d probably sense that you’re being inefficient and then you would do something about it. 

Perhaps you might:

  • Turn the technical task into a program, such as a bash or Python script so that you didn’t have to manually perform the steps every single time.
  • Commit that program to a known codebase or repository so that others could find it and improve it themselves if they needed to.

This was a common pattern during the early days of Brandwatch when we didn’t have a customer support team: the engineers did a lot of manual hacking until those hacks could be turned into features. A lot of our automated scripts became the first version of our internal admin interface for our software.

However, when it comes to communication, managers find themselves writing that metaphorical code again and again and again, without necessarily thinking that there could be a better way to operate. There almost always is. And not only will it save their time, it may even make the communication itself more impactful as well.

Extract and broadcast what you repeatedly communicate

In a given week, how much information do you communicate that is broadly applicable to all of your direct reports? If your direct reports are managers, how much of that information is applicable and relevant to all of their staff?

Here’s a little exercise for you to try out.

Have a think through everything that you discussed in your one-to-ones this week. What percentage of the information that you shared was repeated from one meeting to the next? You’ll be surprised: often it’s quite a lot.

Then you should apply your engineering brain. What you should do in the future is batch up that information as the week progresses, then hoist it up a level and then communicate it in a way that gives you the maximum one-to-many impact for the effort that you put into communicating it in the first place. (If I was to use a silly management term, I would say that you want to increase the leverage of your communication effort.)

There are a number of different ways that you could do this:

  • Write a weekly written summary to your staff. As you collect relevant information throughout the week, start building up a bullet point list of anything that you think is worth sharing more widely. Then, once a week, turn it into a digest that you send around to everyone.
  • Alternatively, record a video. Some people find speaking easier than writing, so why not record a short video walking through the same information if it makes the process simpler and faster for you?
  • Organize a regular information sharing meeting or town hall. The benefit of this is that it also enables participation and you can answer questions. You can record it for future reference.
  • Keep a document or wiki up to date that people can view at their leisure. If you have lots of “nice to know” information rather than critically important news, then this is a way of not overwhelming everyone’s inboxes. Instead, they can browse at the frequency that suits them.

Even if it takes 30 minutes out of your week in order to prepare a broadcast communication, it’s still probably less time than you would have spent repeating yourself saying the same things over and over in your one-to-ones. 

What’s nice is that you can also be sure that everyone has received exactly the same information, and you can take your time to ensure that it’s being broadcast in the most clear and concise way that you can muster. 

What’s more is that it frees up precious time in your one-to-ones for career development, coaching and helping your staff work on their biggest issues. It makes you a better manager.

So go on: you wouldn’t write that code again and again. So why would you communicate the same information repeatedly? Extract, abstract, and broadcast. 

At the very least do it for the poor souls overhearing your video calls.

Less status updates, more coaching

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Managing managers

This article is part of a series on managing managers.

How many of your one-to-ones with your team end up being status updates? How about your one-to-ones with your own manager? And just how boring are they? I know, right? Snore.

Although this article is focused on correcting a common pattern of behavior that you can fall into when managing managers, it’s really applicable to all managers at any level of an organization. However, when you manage managers it can sometimes be really hard to avoid filling your precious one-to-one time with your direct reports with yet another series of updates on how some project is going.

There’s a good reason after all: it’s likely that each of your managers are responsible for implementing a stream of work that you are fundamentally accountable for. For example, your managers could each be running engineering teams that are building part of the overall roadmap or even different products, and, assuming that you’ve given them a reasonable level of autonomy, you’re not going to know the exact details of what is going on hour to hour, day to day. 

Of course, being the diligent manager that you are, you are curious as to what’s going on. After all, you’re accountable. But more importantly, you want to be able to find areas that could be improved, suggest alternative approaches, understand the detail better, or even just offer some praise. That’s great. You definitely should be doing these things. But maybe you’re doing it in a way that’s having adverse side-effects.

Status snore-fests

Much like obsessively focusing on the destination rather than being present and enjoying the journey, the topics of conversation that status updates generate can become extremely unfulfilling and tedious for both of you.

Here’s some example snore-fests:

  • “Has the API now been built?”
  • “Does it look like we’re going to be on time for shipping next week?”
  • “How is Bob doing with finalizing the UX research?”
  • “Has Alice deployed the new storage architecture?”

These methods of questioning for status updates have real flaws:

  • All of the questions are closed, suggesting that you want short and concise answers and you don’t want to explore the subject further.
  • All of the questions surround timeliness, suggesting that you only really care about a task being completed, rather than the way in which that task is being done.
  • All of the questions are really boring, which isn’t fun for either of you. We only live once.
  • And, most importantly, all of the questions give you no opportunity for coaching

The last one is the kicker.

Getting precious time for coaching

When you’re managing managers, the best use of your time is coaching: that is, guiding your staff to work out the solutions to their own problems. There’s a whole article on coaching on this website about how to do coaching, but the rough gist is that in your synchronous meeting time each week you should be:

  • Following their interests in conversation in order to find the most impactful topics that they consciously or subconsciously need your help with. You gravitate around what they gravitate around.
  • Continually pushing the thought bubble back over their head by asking open-ended questions so that they are able to find the answers to their own problems (see: rubber ducking). “So why is that?” “Tell me more about why reads are slow.” “Is that the only way you could approach it?”

Coaching is really simple in theory, but hard to master. You only get better by practicing, so try to create the space within your one-to-ones to act as a coach, and you will start to see your managers improve in leaps and bounds.

Make time for conscious coaching. Move away from asking for status updates.

But aren’t the status updates important?

Yes, they’re important. But they don’t need to happen in your precious synchronous time together each week.

Instead, try to work out a way in which you can receive reliable and up-to-date information on what is going on within the work streams of each of your teams outside of your one-to-one meetings. 

There are a number of ways in which you can do this.

  • Have your direct report write a weekly digest that outlines the main status updates and highlights elements that they want to bring your attention to. I personally do this on Friday every week for my own manager, who is the CTO. This allows us to comment back and forth asynchronously before our next one-to-one, which in turn means we can focus on the really interesting stuff during that hour.
  • Have your direct report broadcast their progress more widely. This could be done through writing or recording regular broadcast updates for the department (and beyond) showing how their projects are progressing, where to find the link to the latest demo, and what’s coming next. This is a great way for them to improve their communication skills and for them to receive additional feedback.
  • Set up software to report on progress. This could be as simple as a view generated from their ticket tracking software, or a series of graphs and metrics if they are responsible for particular SLOs. This way you are able to occasionally dip into these views when you’re curious about what’s going on, or if you’d like to find some areas to ask deeper questions about in your next one-to-one.

I’m sure you can think of many more ways also.

However, the important thing is that the information that satiates your desire to know the progress of each of your direct reports’ teams does not need to fill up your one-to-one time. If it is, then there’s always another way to acquire that information, often in a more archivable, digestible and detailed way. 

Instead, fill up your one-to-ones with the good stuff. Coaching is one element. But you should also talk about career development, how they’re feeling, discuss an interesting or provocative article, dig deeper into what motivates them, uncover the biggest problems they’re stuck on, and also allow them to ask the same of you. 

The yield of this effort, compounded over time, is gigantic. Rather than being that dull manager who just asks what’s going on on all of the time, you can be that manager who has a magical way of getting their direct reports to continually level up themselves and their team without them even knowing that you’re doing it.

All it takes is the smallest shift in conversation.