Direction Sense

First off, sorry this post was so late. #LifeHappens

I wanted to start this post with a question I drop around the house … a lotYou know what the problem is?

I’m sure my wife thought the name of this blog was initially going to be You know what the problem is? (that’s a far cry from Zen of Zero #paynoattentiontothemanbehindthecurtain). She’s affectionately mentioned (more than once or twice) that I need to write a book where every page is a different thing that frustrates me to which I obviously have a clear, effective, and concise solution.

I haven’t gotten around to actually writing that book, so I’ll just pose the question again, this time to all of you:

You know what the problem is?

Well, I suppose you have your own ideas (we should collaborate on that book by the way) but I’m thinking about all those times you’ve been asked for something without being given any real direction regarding what’s expected of you. Think about how many times you’ve worked through something and then ended up getting feedback like:

You’re close, but that’s not quite it


Less of what you’ve got there and more “something else”

It’s the worst, right? I agree.

There are going to be many times you’re working on a project and someone isn’t quite sure what needs to be done, but they’re engaged and working with you to accomplish a common goal. That’s ok, in fact, it gives me the warm and fuzzies. However, it’s the times you’re left adrift without a paddle and no idea which way is up that become especially frustrating.

It would be nice to hit the ground sprinting every day, wouldn’t it? Come in, have a clear understanding of what it is that needs doing and off you go. The challenge most of us savor in our day-to-day comes not from an attempt to divine what someone else needs, but instead from our ability to use our creativity to solve an issue that’s been revealed to us (if only it could be this clear every day).


As a leader, there’s a balance between providing enough information to know what direction someone is supposed to move in and, at the same time, allowing enough freedom for someone to figure out exactly how they’re going to get there. It’s the reason why orienteering is fun and following the instructions from a GPS is annoying (albeit sometimes necessary). You can draw a similar comparison between providing guidance and straight up micromanaging your team.

Focusing your communication on providing clarity with regards to your goals (not solutions) and really just knowing what you want done is paramount. It feels like a simple thing (knowing what you want), but its critically important to the confidence your team will have in you and the resulting benefits to their efficacy. To pull a quote from the book Scaling Up:

We have the answers, all the answers; it’s the questions we do not know

I recently had an opportunity to work with a co-worker with whom I don’t normally collaborate. In all honesty I was looking forward to it. This guy is known to be a real performer and knows how to get things done. He is a complete ass-kicker when it comes to getting results and consistently delivers great work for us. Who wouldn’t be excited to have a chance to work with someone like that, right? The scope of the work was right in the sweet spot, come up with some prelim ideas for implementing a solution, contrast a few different approaches, and suggest a potential way forward. I love this stuff!

So off I go to get started. We have some napkin-level-of-detail discussions to get going and eventually I realize I need to find out:

Am I supposed to provide level of detail A, or level of detail B for this effort?

After some failed attempts to get additional information I was left with no clear understanding of either the content I was supposed to be providing, or the format in which it should be provided. Not exactly a shining moment.

The biggest issue I was dealing with had nothing to do with development or arch. The question I needed an answer to was more about understanding how I’m supposed to deliver the content and not what the content was (as it turns out, that was also unclear, but I digress…)

I was sitting on the other side of the table. I was in the shoes of any frustrated colleague I’ve worked with over the past little while. Most importantly, I was being provided with some reinforcement in terms of the types of things that I do, and don’t want to do when I’m running a project of my own. I wouldn’t allow the blame to fall at the feet of anyone other than myself when it comes to work I’m supposed to be doing, however, sometimes the feeling of uncertainty or the lack of clarity that I was feeling on this particular project is the exact kind of thing I strive to remove when I’m working in a more typical role as a lead or architect.

As an aside, the most frustrating piece of the entire engagement wasn’t that I was a bit lost trying to figure out what I was going to deliver, but rather that my deliverables were eventually tossed out never to be seen again by anyone.

Solving problems is the fun part of my job, it’s the reason why I get up and go to work every day. However, the challenge of solving those problems needs to start with an understanding of the problem I’m trying to solve. Furthermore, when I’m leading a team, making sure that the people on my team know what they’re supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis or that as many obstacles as possible are removed from the front of them is kind of the only thing that matters when it comes to the value I’m delivering.

  1. Telling people what you want in enough detail to give them a strong sense of directionand
  2. Providing so much detail that you completely hamstring their ability to flex their creative muscles and, you know, actually enjoy the work they’re doing.

Balancing this level of direction isn’t really all that challenging per se if you have the right people working on the right projects. Aligning those two things is a really key factor in any project’s success; take the best ruby developer you’ve got and force them to work on a Java project without support and see how that goes (answer: not good – if that wasn’t abundantly clear).


So, back to that question: You know what the problem is?

It’s some combination of…

People are too busy to properly delegate …

People don’t actually know what it is they want…


People haven’t been given enough direction themselves to know what it is they’re supposed to be asking for.

I say that we, as a group of proactive, engaged, and supportive leaders, we collectively try and change these trends, shall we?

Let’s start with a few simple tricks to keep us on the right track:

  1. Understand and track your capacity to take on additional work (Inbox Zero Shout-Out)
  2. Make sure you have an understanding of what it is you’re trying to get accomplished before you bring other people on-board
  3. Clarify when you need additional direction before simply agreeing to complete some nebulous task

To paraphrase a once-upon-a-time-funny-guy

Of course!

Of course I would get clarification before starting … of course I would have a good idea of my goals before I was floundering around in the dark … of course I would only accept new work when I wasn’t bogged down with 100 other things… of course…

but … but maybe … Maybe since the opposite of all these things happens on such a frequent basis we’re back in the familiar realm of common sense isn’t that common.

This leads us to the problem really eager people have when it comes to just saying no. Saying no isn’t always the easiest thing to do and it’s made even more difficult when a request comes from someone you respect. We read about this all the time when “experts” tell us not to attend meetings if there’s no value, not to agree to deliver something against a timeline we can’t possibly meet, and not handing out development estimates on the spot. “Just say no”

Granted, we understand that it is not always easy, however we also understand how immensely valuable it can be. Having sat on the other side of the table for this one engagement, I was on the receiving end of a really good reminder of why that is. There’s always a next time. Next time you can be sure that I’ll be mentally reciting those three points above and making sure I’m getting the direction I need before I sit down to start working. After all, you wouldn’t go orienteering without a compass and a map, so why treat your projects any differently?


2 thoughts on “Direction Sense

  1. Well said Aaron!

    While we hear know to Begin With The End In Mind (Stephen Covey’s habit #2), sometimes a few waypoints need to be filled in. As you alluded to in your post, much depends on the people you are working with.

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