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?


Possibly the best leadership book I’ve ever read (Part 1)

After I got into the writing of this post I realized that the whole thing was too long for 1 entry. As a result I’ve broken up the initial piece into multiples which I’ll be posting weekly until the series is done.

It’s funny, over the past year or so the OBS book club has been focusing almost exclusively on books focused on leadership and self-improvement (no, not “self-improvement”) and it has provided us with some pretty profound insights into what makes good and bad leaders as well as good and bad organizations. Thinking back to some of the books we ready like “Start with Why” or “Strategy and the Fat Smoker” and though the tone in each book is different many of the underlying messages are actually the same when it comes to what makes great organizations great. Sharing a workplace with like-minded people who have business goals that are aligned with your own should result in some measure of success. Granted, Sinek would chalk this alignment between employees and leadership up to trusting each other while Maister would say:

If an organization’s leaders want their people to believe that a new strategy is being followed, they must establish credibility by proving that they are prepared to change themselves: how they act, measure, and reward.

…but the idea is the same.

Both books are referencing the idea that you need to practice what you preach and stand by your word to earn credibility with the people that work both with, and for you. Another way to think about this is that both books are really speaking to a leader’s conviction to

Do the right thing…

Even when its hard or not immediately obvious…

Which results in eventual trust

It feels automatic that we’d agree with such an obvious statement, doesn’t it? Isn’t that EXACTLY what we want not only our leaders, but the people they mentor to be able to demonstrate? You can’t teach strength of character, but through modelling and strong leadership, the hope is that at least a few good habits get picked up by the next generation, or in this case, the next generation of leaders. The ideas around how we can lead such that we maximize the opportunity for our teams to grow is the subject of the book in question and hence why I’m writing to you all right now. Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post.

So what’s the big deal? Well I found it interesting to discover that this book (which I’ve gone through multiple times) was written over 20 years ago, it has no references to business / markets / strategies / corporations / etc. and is, in fact, about parenting. Think about it, what is parenting but the most important leadership job you could ever apply for. Counterintuitive to nearly everything we try and apply process against, this most important role comes with no on-boarding manual, no interview process, and no prerequisites with regards to qualifications or experience.

Alive 9 months ago? Check! … Aaaand you’re in!

Enter: Kids Are Worth It.

In my opinion this has the potential to be a huge addition your leadership toolkit (provided you’ll allow me to make a few small substitutions – more on that later)

Barbara Coloroso released the first edition of “Kids Are Worth It” back in 1994. Consider that for a second. 1994? That was before the internet. Before the dot-com bust. Before everyone and their dog had the ability to share their ideas immediately and be exposed (subjected?) to the scrutiny of the world wide web. It’s almost crazy to consider that so much of this book is still applicable in the workplace of today.
So what about this book really grabbed my attention? I enjoyed it’s simplicity, its directness, and quite frankly its lack of long drawn out references to research conducted so long ago that there is no way it could be considered even remotely relevant. How many times have you read a book (let’s say this year – for argument’s sake) and the author is quoting research performed 6 / 7 years ago? How often, then, do you also take a second to think:

Do I even believe that? Is this even still a thing?

Barbara doesn’t go into any of that. She provides anecdotes which quickly get to the point and immediately follows it up with resolutions and strategies to correct or support different behaviors. Now granted, many of the examples are related specifically to families and, not surprising, children, but for the purposes of this post lets do a quick swap of:

Parents <—-> Leaders

Children <—-> Team

Now before anyone throws their hands up and gets all enraged about comparing your team to children (despite how appropriate it may be), go back up and re-read what I’m actually saying here:

We’re not drawing a comparison, we’re swapping these labels to demonstrate how the concepts in this book translate from a family to your workplace (arguably a different kind of family).

The core concept of this book relies around three kinds of leaders (NB: we said we were substituting – stay with me):

  1. Jellyfish – No firm parts at all and reacts to every eddy and current that comes along. Structure is almost nonexistent; the need for it may not even be acknowledged or understood.
  2. Backbone – A living supple spine that gives form and movement to the whole body. Structure is present and firm and flexible and functional
  3. Brick wall – A nonliving thing designed to restrict to keep in, and to keep out. The structure is rigid and used for control and power both of which are in the hands of the leader

Coloroso immediately points out that the underlying difference between these leaders is:

… the kind of structure that holds them together. This structure affects all the relationships of the teamteam member to leader, leader to team member, leader to leader, and team member to team member …

We’ve probably all had an opportunity to work with one or more of these kinds of leaders or been part of teams matching one or more of these descriptions in the past. I found it fascinating how immediately transferable the concepts felt in terms of the teams I’ve seen operate at many different companies in many different industries. In addition to these team or leadership descriptions, the basic characteristics of each team type were provided along with a particularly interesting set of messages the Backbone leader specifically should be providing to their team on a daily basis (adjusted slightly for context):

I believe in you

I trust you

You can handle situations that arise

You are listened to

You are cared for

You are important

I feel that the best leaders with which I’ve had the opportunity to work have actually done a good job of communicating most, if not all, of these messages as frequently as possible. Actually, I feel like the best leaders do a good job of communicating these messages without the use of words. The 1000:1 ratio with words is well known, but best felt when you’re given a task slightly outside your comfort zone, put in a position to succeed and are provided with the tools and support you need without anyone expressly saying “I know you can do this, I believe in you” (though I still buy into that as well).

six leadership messages

It comes back to doing the things which may initially be challenging and potentially counter-intuitive in a “business environment” but result in increased cohesion among the team and ultimately increased trust… #simonsinekherewegoagain

… and really, isn’t that what we want to develop in all of the teams we have the opportunity to be a member of?