Continuous Learning

Pushing Past the Peter Principle

The path that I have seen often in leadership / management is that the best individual contributor gets promoted.   They get promoted because they are the best at what they do and obviously they should be the one that trains, manages, and grooms the other people that do exactly the same job.  They do this for a few years and are great and passionate about it.  They spend most of their time setting up standards, scaling the team with people that were less productive than they were and try to coach them to be just like them.  They are still afraid of their skills as a manager, so they don’t hire someone as talented or better than they were.  The do a good job and then their manager begins to include them in some of their tasks or gives them some of their responsibilities [because management is lonely].  Then they get promoted to manager of managers  and they make it – right?   Not necessarily.

Change and Innovation is the killer of most good managers
It is very hard to keep up to date with the tools and skills that you used every day in your craft after becoming a manager.   You lose some of the skills the less you use them.   That is sustainable to a point – because you don’t need to do that job anymore, right?  The nuances in your domain change and evolve too – but you can get that just by talking to your staff, right?

It is not that easy.   Most knowledge workers become experts in their field through repetition.  We see things more than once – often more than 10 times before we mark it as a trend and begin to put standards or patterns around it.   The standard is that it takes 10,000 hours before you become an expert at something.  However, it is not often so simple as if you see x then do y – there is often nuance in it where you need to understand the complete context of the item.   This is often lost when we are only getting the view from the sidelines or the coaches box.

Remember the game of telephone? [we are going to need a new analogy for this soon.]  The game of telephone is a game played in elementary school where the teacher gathers all the students in a line and tells the first student a phrase and then each of the kids one by one tell the next kid by whispering it to them.  Finally the last student in line has to say what they heard out loud.  At the end the version of the story is always wrong and it is often VERY wrong. — The further you get removed from the problem the more context that slips through your fingers

Another disadvantage of the common management career trajectory is that your boss ends up involving you in their job – now both of you are sharing responsibilities and two people are doing the job of one.  It is good for SPOK [Single Point of Knowledge] remediation, collaboration, and skills grooming, but be careful that you are not over coupling the process and slowing things down.

Why this is worse in software?

Software is changing very rapidly and will continue to grow and change.  Last decades best practices are today’s biggest gotchas.  Software is very good at identifying the biggest problems and challenges and reinventing itself to improve those areas in the most dramatic fashion.  For example, 15 years ago standardizing all of your functionality in a database was the recommendation.   Lock down your data model and use it to force all of your rogue developers to use the same standards and be aligned on the data model.  Today, the database is a commodity where you should be able to point your domain model at any database or god forbid a non-relational database or none at all and it will just work.

Meh, I am solidified in management’s inner circle – I have nothing to worry about…

Now, remember why you were promoted in the first place.   You were a highly skilled individual contributor that was there to bridge between the business and your team as the organization scaled very quickly.   You were the best of your team and would be able to guide the business on making good decisions because of your hands on knowledge, intimacy with the domain, and ability to think about the bigger picture.   Do you still have the skills to provide that value?

So, what can you do about it?

  • Never stop learning.
  • Roll up your sleeves.
  • Dig in.
  • Get VERY involved with your teams.
  • Help them with any and every chance you get.  Take a step back – do whatever you can to remain relevant.

The business needs pure managers too – right?
IMHO, pure managers are a dime a dozen.  There are always new staff that ARE experts in the day to day and can learn/be coached/grow in management.   It is much easier to teach someone management skills than it is to teach them the core skills of a team or a domain.   Plus, trust me, managers are out there to be hired.

What I did about it?

I found myself in this situation because I had focused all of my time and all of my learning just on leadership and management.  I had let a gap grow for too long at a time when it seems like everything changed.  I had gotten involved with a specific domain and focused on the specific problems in front of me.  Until I realized how far removed I had gotten and how I could not jump in and help out a team under a deadline crunch.  On the other hand, I had learned a lot about leadership in the past and I do not regret the learning I did on those skills.   They helped me focus on improving in the skills I needed to get what I wanted to get done.  The one thing I might have changed was to have more of a balanced approach.

I focused my life on continuous learning.  I started from the beginning and did not rush it.   I spent mornings and weekends watching videos to get up to speed with the technologies that had changed.   I shadowed teams and got involved as much as I could.  I started a side project.  I volunteered to jump in and do some of the work the teams would normally do and did it in addition to my other responsibilities.

I keep a learning journal and in the style of Benjamin Franklin I write down what I learned each day (I am getting more consistent about this at least).  I have made this a habit.  I keep a list of things that I want to learn and I leverage others to teach me how we do specific things.

I tried to get as hands-on as I can – and I had a lot of fun doing it.

Now, is my goal to become the best developer on the team? — hell no, that would be a waste of my time and I would be wasting the company’s investment in me.   My goal is to have enough of the context to truly understand the challenges and day to day work of my teams.   This will help me do the best job that I can in my role and be able to steer my team into delivering the most business value that I can [which in the end is my job].

What I did realize was that I forgot how much I loved my old job.  It is fun to solve problems and provide instant value to the business.  You get a much better understanding of the impact of decisions when you understand the little picture as much as the big picture.  You feel good and it may help ignite that spark back in you that you had when you did that job and wanted to get into management.

A word of caution…

If you have stopped learning for a while it can be very hard to get back into things.   A manager’s lifestyle can sometimes be going more shallow into ideas and trying to make quicker decisions which can make slowing down and learning harder.   That ability to tune everything out and focus is like a muscle that might need to strengthened first.  I would check out Cal Newport’s book Deep Work if you want to learn more about this.

One last contributing factor

Phil Libin of Evernote discussed in his podcast on Tim Ferriss show that most companies need to throw away and rebuiild the way that they work every time that they scale x3 – 1-3-10-30-100,300, etc.  I think that managers need to identify the time when they have a disconnect with the way that they used to do things.  They may need to go deep and spend time getting their hands dirty again.  Consider it a management sabbatical or a side job.  After going through mine, I feel that I am making better decisions based on it.

An alternate view
One might argue that if you have teams that are empowered and self organizing that you can be hands off and let them make all of the decisions and recommendations from the bottom up.   I love teams that work like this and completely agree that they are the most effective teams.  In my experience the best business decisions are made when both the teams and management collaborate on the problem solving and decisions and have a shared pool of knowledge (not always shared agreement on facts) to work through.   Believe it or not, there is a reason for management, and the more on the same page the teams and management are  — the better for the business (which is what it is ALL about).



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