Thursday, August 26, 2010

Always an Opinion

Let's say we have a new engineering leader - a QA lead, a support manager, or a development manager. One of the things that usually happens when someone is promoted to lead is that there is a lot more available information. There are more meetings that involve other groups. There are email threads that expose information previously unseen.

A few examples:
  • the new QA Manager now sees all support tickets automatically
  • a new tech lead for a product now gets an email describing marketing plans for that product
  • the new development manager goes to a cross team weekly status meeting involving product management and several other development teams
Now we have someone with a lot of new information and a feeling that they need to "step up" and "show they can do this job". This combination can lead to a dangerous new attribute:

They always have an opinion.

You an tell this is happening because all of a sudden your newly minted manager is replying to every email thread and speaking up in every section of every meeting, even when those things are at best tangentially related to his area of expertise.

For example, the new tech lead gets cc'd on a communication indicating this release is going to be formally launched at a major industry conference. He replies, "What percent of our intended users are going to be at that conference? Do we know how we're going to measure if this is the right conference so that we can connect to next year's conference?" The question is valid, and almost certainly well-intentioned, but the tech lead is way out of his knowledge area at this point. In addition, the tone of the response is probing and almost aggressive; sure, it's "just a question", but it's a question that indicates doubt, with connotations of "I doubt your decision". If it happens once or twice, then it's no big deal - just someone learning about the new things to which he has been exposed. If it happens frequently, then there's a problem.

This kind of probing questioning outside a person's core area is a sign of a lack of trust.

Whether or not our new tech lead actually doesn't trust marketing to do its job (or sales, or support, or other dev teams), frequent responses and offers of opinions and doubts on topics outside his core area certainly makes it look like he doesn't trust his new peers.

My advice to the new manager is this:

Sit back and watch for a while. Keep in mind where you came from; that's your core area about which you will almost always have opinions, and that's probably why you're here. But in things that are new to you and that are outside your core area, just watch and listen. You don't have to have an opinion yet - you just have to learn.

Over time you'll figure out how to tell when a decision is good or not in these new areas. You'll also discover how to tell when the outcome of a decision matters and when it's not important enough to raise a fuss over. Then - and only then - it's time to start speaking up.

Show trust. It's not necessary for you to weigh in on everything. Let everyone else do their job, too, without your interference.


  1. Great post. I've been thinking about this very thing a lot the past 4 months since I've become QA-lead on my project. It's important to know when to bite your tongue.

    Followed your blog for a year now and enjoy it.