CTO Ergonomics: Stop Shrugging!
Over the years, people have described my work in different manners: bridge, therapist, coach, shadow adviser, zipper(?!), Babelfish, etc. One part of my work no one has verbalized yet is sort of a masseur. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t touch my clients, and most of my work is done remotely anyway. But since so many of you seem to be walking about constantly shrugging, my job is to help you release those shoulders!
Are you going through your day feeling like you’re not deciding how to spend your time but instead are pulled in different directions? We seem to miss the fact that tech leadership should include a fair amount of taking the lead. When you simply “go with the flow,” you are not likely to perform your best work and achieve the most impact on your team. This article is about fine-tuning your day-to-day handling of issues so you will leverage your agency and remain connected to your team.
Considering the above diagram, we will debug this simple cycle of handling issues, as well as the regular ways it goes off track.
The initial stage for addressing the issue is becoming aware of it. How would that happen? First, there are those areas where you witness problems or sense that something might be wrong and decide to dig deeper. The alternative is that someone brings the matter to your attention.
The former won’t happen if you stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is alright. I’ve seen many executives whose days are busy. They essentially turn a blind eye to many issues. Some of those minor issues might grow into catastrophes if left. You are also always modeling behavior to your team. When they see you pretend nothing out of the ordinary happened, they will do the same, and thus, you will quickly deteriorate the organization’s culture.
The other side, which is about having others come to you, will not happen if you are not approachable. My pet peeve is executives boasting their “open door policy.” When I inquire how many people have walked through that door, they usually scratch their heads. The way it works is that executives often have a couple of people with whom they have a great rapport and a candid relationship. The rest of the team never speaks up or feels the executive is not accessible. Work on that, for example, by walking around the office or having regular skip-level one-on-ones.
Deciding What to Do
Once you’ve spotted an issue, you should decide how to tackle it. I’ve written many times about decision waffling, but the gist of it is that we tend to put off decisions even though we are not collecting any additional information in the meantime. Sometimes, even if you do get more information, it is not likely to change the decisions either way or reduce risk in a manner that justifies waiting.
Permitting too many issues that were spotted to accumulate without deciding how to treat them is terribly fatiguing. Our brains are not great at juggling all those open loops, no matter how much you lie to yourself about it. Every problem that pops into your mind once a day (or once an hour) is a sign that you are letting your cognitive load grow mountainous.
Some quick thoughts:
You don’t have to do anything: It is fine to consider an issue and make a decision to leave it be. This is different from spotting something and pretending it is not an issue in that you have given it thought, considered the risks, and have made a mindful choice to put it aside. In fact, we often have the intuition that a matter doesn’t really need to be addressed, but we feel guilty about it, so we keep it in decision limbo. Stop it.
You can decide to decide later: I recently told a CEO that he could just choose to make a decision later. “What? I was sure you’ll bust my chops about not doing this!” The truth is that we do not need to be dogmatic. If you’ve assessed the situation and believe you can delay any action for a couple of months, that is a legitimate course of action. Again, the key here is to make a mindful choice.
Any decision is often better than no decision: As we make more decisions, we’ll instinctively become better at it with time. However, if your habit is to mull over things repeatedly, you’ll only get good at… mulling.
Bring the Action
Having made a decision, it’s time to make it a reality. How many times have you left a meeting where a decision was ostensibly made, yet nothing changed afterward? It’s like you’re a goldfish, immediately forgetting what you just said. I read that governments often execute solely 15–20% of their decisions. Companies tend to be somewhat better, averaging 30–40%. That still means that a whopping majority of the meetings you sat at ended up being an utter and total waste of time.
Put simply, it is your role to ensure that things get done. You don’t have to do the work yourself. You don’t even have to keep people accountable. But you are in charge of forming an organizational standard where words are translated into action. If you don’t, you are again modeling behavior that teaches the team that words have no value. Having helped many companies that have allowed such a standard to fester for long, it is tough to right the ship after. You are better off taking action now.
Research shows that when we claim we’d do something but fail to do so, we are training our brains to become used to it. We essentially no longer trust ourselves. That’s why you shouldn’t decide to do something if it doesn’t really need to be done, as the previous part explains. However, once you’ve decided to do something, you should do it or make a new decision to change your mind. Don’t keep agonizing yourself about not doing it. That doesn’t get us anywhere.
The last part of the cycle is to ensure that you take some time to assess how it all went down once things are done. For more significant projects, this can be a full-fledged retrospective session. But for simpler matters, it can be as simple as taking three minutes to consider things before you check off the last to-do item and continue to the next issue. Maybe everything went smoothly, and you just need to tap yourself on the back, that’s great. Other times, you might realize with the benefit of hindsight that you could have done something differently. Thinking about it will improve the odds that you’ll notice the same pattern when it occurs again.
However, we often skip this step when we rush to get things done. The problem is that this is usually the part of the cycle that has the most return on investment. You’ve already done all the hard work. This is merely a matter of thinking a bit to improve based on your lessons. Teams that do this religiously are teams that tend to accelerate with time as opposed to growing slower.
What part of the Wheel of Efficacy is your current weakest link? Congratulations, you’ve just spotted an issue. You know the next step.
© Aviv Ben-Yosef 2022 — Originally published on the best newsletter for tech executives