How I learned to stop meddling


I ran across Fred Wilson's latest post this morning, and I have something to confess. I'm a meddler. If I see someone struggling with a task I know well, I have a strong urge to jump in and 'help'. This isn't always a bad thing, in the past it's helped me train up more junior folks, and experienced folks could always tell me to go take a hike.

That's all changed since I've become a CTO. Even though it's a small team, I'm a 'boss', which means that people are prone to humoring me more. It took me a while to realize, but no matter how diplomatic I think I am, my guys don't feel as comfortable telling me to bugger off.

Over the last couple of months, I've had to learn a new style of interacting with them. Instead of giving 'helpful' suggestions on the best approach to solving a problem, I'll lay out the goals and some thoughts at the start, and then step back and let them find their own path to an implementation. I'm always available to answer questions and give advice when they ask for it, and we'll often do an informal post-mortem on what did and didn't work at the end of the sprint, but otherwise I try to give them the freedom to code their own way.

I'm lucky enough to be working with a bunch of very smart folks, so the results have been impressive, the solutions have been much more imaginative and effective than they were. It's been humbling to see how strong a negative effect my frequent interventions had, but thinking back on my own career it makes sense. "Voice and choice" were the keys to the jobs I loved. If I'd been involved in planning my own work, and then made decisions about how to tackle it, it turned from being a servile task I was grudgingly performing for someone else, into my project that I worked extra hard on because I truly felt ownership. I would even go out of my way to work in areas that were difficult and unpopular because those were the ones where I had the most freedom. Nobody wanted to interfere with my work on video format conversion code in Motion, for fear they'd be pulled into the quagmire too!

The liberating thing has been how much it has freed me up to work on other vital parts of my job, but that's a subject for another post. If any of this is sounding familiar to you, try really giving your team voice and choice, you'll be amazed at the results!

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