Get More Done by Working Less
VP Engineering at Synack
As your role has grown to encompass more and more responsibilities, especially in terms of the size or number of teams you manage, it’s natural to become quickly overwhelmed. Most of us fall into the trap of simply working more hours and suffering from the inevitable burnout that follows. If you’ve found yourself in this situation then it is necessary to change how you operate. You do not have time to do everything you once did and to still do them the way you were doing them before. In order to succeed you will have to very carefully decide where to reduce your level of involvement.
People tend to err on one side or the other, distancing themselves too much from the details or staying stuck firmly in them. Becoming too far removed from the day to day results in poor decision making, and your team becomes less effective. This can be seen as the “trust but don’t verify” method. Stay too far in the weeds and you can’t make the kind of large changes that your teams will need to improve. This is the typical “no delegation” method. Navigating this challenge is something that every manager will have to deal with.
When I went from managing two teams to now managing three, I was struck with the realization that I had to change or one of two things was going to happen - I was going to fail, or I was going to work myself to death somewhere along the way. But how? I didn’t know where to start. After some reflection, I concluded that because I could sustainably work only 45 hours a week, I simply had no choice but to figure out how to get my job done within that constraint. That decision led me to critically evaluate the impact of all things I had been doing and to start thinking about how to have that same impact with a much more efficient expenditure of my time. This was a substantial reframing of the problem.
First off, I identified what steps in the software development life cycle were critical for me to have complete transparency into. I limited my interaction with the teams to just those key points, of course along with regular one-on-ones with my direct reports. I encouraged my teams to pull me in when needed, and I’d give them high-level direction and guidance when they started new efforts. That approach proved to be highly effective. By operating this way I was able to identify and diagnose processes, people, or technical challenges just as they become critical to address. Now the hands-on time I spent with my team was to help them solve problems for which they lacked the skills.
At the same time, I had to deal with the challenge of being given too many direct reports - 17! A ridiculous number, but we simply didn’t have enough people to manage them. I went through my list and identified people who needed less attention than others, pinpointed the kind of support they needed, and found other people to fill that gap for me. Though I couldn’t afford to give everyone attention, I made sure that everyone would get what they needed. As an example, junior people tend to need frequent technical oversight and to learn how to communicate better -- and these are skills that a senior engineer can easily teach.
I also decided to invest more in budding leaders and delegate some of the work I had been doing, but check in with them regularly to make sure they were handling it well. I then looked for people who were passionate about how to build software - the SDLC - and started leaning on them heavily to provide the daily reinforcement of agile best practices. Once I identified the things I wanted to get done and who had the ability - if not the skill - I put effort into educating and training those people.
Finally, I set aside an hour at the end of the week to think about the work that I had done that week. Did I focus on the right things? Did I get the outcome that I wanted? Reflecting on these questions allowed me to plan better for the next week.
- You have to ruthlessly prioritize your time. Map out what is important for your team to deliver. Talk to your stakeholders, get a clear picture, and combine it with your own understanding of what you think needs to get done. Now, focus your time on only those things. Prioritizing ruthlessly around your clearly-defined goals is absolutely critical.
- Develop levers inside your org. Find talented people who can be trained to do some of your work for you.
- Quickly setting up the leaders for all your teams is important. If you don’t have good leadership at the team level you will never get to a good place. If you can quickly grow someone into a leader, lean into it. If you can’t, go make a hire.
- Put aside an hour at the end of your week for pure reflection. Protect that one-hour slot on your calendar as if your life depended on it. In that one un-rushed hour, think about how you have spent your week and the impact of your work. Re-focus and re-plan for the next week. Done before the hour was up? Then you didn’t do enough thinking.
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