Imagine that you’re a technical lead or a manager responsible for the work of at least one team. You also have a ton of technical work you’re supposed to do yourself. Your to-do list is a mile long. What’s the most important thing you can do today?
As the lead or manager, your most important job is to clear the way for other people so they can do their work. In other words, you remove the obstacles that slow, impede, or halt project work.
Remove the Physical Obstacles
The first thing to do is to look around your team’s workspace. What do you see? Are people crooked in their chairs? Have they cobbled together a pairing space? Do they have enough lab space? Do they have the whiteboards, desks, index cards, stickies, monitors, or network connections they need?
Many years ago, when I was a program manager, the architect came to me and said, “I need some time at the chiropractor’s. I’ll be out all afternoon.”
“Ok,” I said, “What’s wrong?”
“My back hurts.” He paused for a few seconds. “That darn desk is too high.”
Now, under normal circumstances, I’m the one complaining about too-high surfaces, but this architect was close to six feet tall, so a too-high desk was a surprise to me. I asked if he could show me what was wrong. We discussed it for a while, and concluded that he needed a different chair and a new desk. I told him I would work on the problem.
I spent almost six hours cajoling, pleading, and fighting with the facilities people. The desk and chair this fellow needed were not justified by his pay grade. But they were what he needed. I had to use all my influence and persuasive powers, and, with the promise of brownies, the desk and chair were delivered the next day.
Now you might not think that this physical obstacle was the most important thing I could have done all day, but we needed the insight this architect could provide. If he was unable to work, my program would have been in worse shape, not better shape.
The architect returned the next day, and was delighted.
“JR, how did you do this?”
“I need to make a bunch of brownies over the next few weeks.”
“I’ll buy them at this bakery on my way in on Mondays.”
We both were happy with that situation!
If you observe people working or ask about physical obstacles, your team will tell you what they need. Determine what you can do and what you can’t. I’ve run afoul of the furniture police when it came to whiteboards and encountered finance people who refused to buy index cards or stickies. I was able to buy the cards and stickies out of petty cash, yet I had to wait until the furniture police had a new manager before I could deal with the whiteboard problem. But if you don’t look and you don’t ask, you can’t remove the physical obstacles people need you to remove.
Look for Systemic Obstacles
If you’re like many of the managers I know, you want to know why it takes so long for your team to finish work. The team doesn’t think it takes so long, but it sure feels that way to you. Look at the flow of work (value stream) to see where the systemic obstacles are.
During an engagement, a manager asked me how long I thought a project should take. I admitted I had no idea but thought it was relatively small, say, a couple of people for