As an organization grows beneath you, you become responsible for an increasing number of “things” which require a fixed amount of continuous attention. Due to constraints of time, space, and biology, there is a fixed amount of attention per day any one human has to offer.
This growth and maturation can be overwhelming as it is accompanied by an increase in requests for your time in the form of emails, phone calls, and meetings. You must develop a new skillset to deal with this new reality. You must learn to delegate, decline, communicate, prioritize, and lead.
But my experience has taught me that the most important skill to learn and one of the hardest to master is “quit caring”.
It may not be obvious, but there is a limited amount of “caring” that you can do. There’s only so much time in the day, and the harsh reality is that caring takes a lot of time and energy. To really care about a problem, you have to really understand it. To really care about fixing the problem, you have to expend a lot of energy working with people to come up with and executing a solution. Both of these tasks take a tremendous amount of investment and if you treat every problem in your organization this way, you will quickly become over-invested and ineffective.
When presented with these challenges, a manager has two options. He may choose to select only those things that are important and ignore the rest or he may alternatively choose to sporadically care about everything.
The first scenario, caring only about the important and ignoring the rest requires some careful planning. If there are more important things than the manager has attention to allocate, then he needs to have people he trusts care about the important things he is responsible for. The manager also must be very honest about which things simply aren’t worth doing or caring about.
As our organization grew and matured, I realized a great deal of my day involved asking people the question, “Do you know about $problem_x?”. If their answer was, “Yes”, then I would reply, “Ok, thanks” and would feel secure forgetting about it. Often times, people would attempt to fill me in on the details of what the current state of $problem_x was, and honestly that wasn’t valuable for me. I found the best way of short-circuiting those conversations was with the comment, “Thanks, but I don’t need the details right now. As long as you’re aware of it, I trust it will be well handled.”
This is more difficult than it might sound, and the antipattern I found myself falling into was the second scenario, “sporadically caring about everything”. This antipattern can be recognized by a constantly shifting intense focus on random areas that you haven’t spent any time paying attention to in months. As I suddenly brought about my focus on the area in question, I began to question everything. “Why is this like this? Why are you doing that? Why aren’t you doing this?”
The cost to a team of suddenly being in the limelight is pretty high. It’s very similar to onboarding a new employee. Without working intimately with the team over the past several months, I had none of the context of the problems their current direction was attempting to solve. An organization is a solution to a problem, and it is very common to think a solution very bizarre without a concrete understanding of the unique historical problems the solution is addressing.
Taking the time required to fully understand the day-to-day operations of a team is a luxury I often do not have, and being born of engineer stock, I am prone to fixing things. Attempting to offer a solution to a problem not fully understood can be very dangerous, and given the hierarchical nature of our relative positions in the organization, a simple proposal can carry more weight than was intended or warranted.
The key here is delegation, which has the prerequisite of trust. To delegate something to someone in a way that is truly valuable, you have to be able to quit caring about it, and for that to happen, you have to have a great amount of trust in your team. If you find yourself overwhelmed with the breadth of things which are requiring your attention, it may be valuable to ask “How can I establish more trust on my team?” instead of “How can I do more stuff?”. There are several actionable things you can do to garner more trust between you and your team, but there are few things you can do to modify the laws of space, time, and biology.