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A New Manager Role: Transitioning from the Solution to Problem Space

New Manager

30 September, 2020

Nael El Shawwa
Nael El Shawwa

Head of Engineering at Perpetua

Nael El Shawwa, former VP of Engineering at Shutterstock, discusses how his transition to a manager’s role was not merely about managing people but about paying more attention to the problem rather than the solution space.

Problem

I was one of the first technical persons to join our startup and as an EM I was comfortable with managing developers, including more junior people. Early on I was able to remain hands-on as the team was growing. Eventually, I hit an inflection point where I realized that as the leader I needed to focus less on “what” the team was doing and more on “how” they are doing it. As a consequence, I had to learn to pay more attention to the problem space rather than to the solution space.

Actions taken

I was initially spending half of my time with the team working on technical details which made sense when there were only three of us. I felt like creating a significant impact by accelerating how fast we built things. As the team grew my immediate involvement ceased to be as impactful and my focus on the solution space was doing no good to the team. It took me almost two years to complete handing over the work I was doing in the solution space to other capable folks on my team. Some people were curious to understand why I was handing over those things. It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested in these details anymore, but I have learned that I can create even more impact by focusing more on the problem space. For example, I was still part of sprint planning but instead of doing the actual planning, I would question if we were solving the right problems at the right time.

While it is always hard to pinpoint a decisive moment when I realized that I should focus more on the problem space, I remember an occasion of laboriously building something that turned out to be not as impactful as we thought it would. We were delivered the problem and had to work on the solution without questioning it. Once you start asking yourself where did you go wrong it is time to move to the problem space.

Part of my transition included that I had to learn to differentiate what I should be still involved with that falls into the solution space while still creating opportunities for other people.

However, problems were not always business problems but included social problems or intricate interpersonal dynamics between different people on the team. I failed to notice some of those problems because I was focused on the solution space. For example, I once learned about interpersonal challenges someone encountered that were not visible to me because I was still too focused on the solution space.

Lessons learned

  • When you transition from an IC to a manager you also must begin a transition from the solution space into the problem space. Your future growth and progression as a manager heavily depend on your ability to explore and understand the problem space.
  • As you progress to managing managers, you will need to learn how to dive deeper into the problem space and create room for your team to explore the solution space.. Your value becomes dependent on your ability to challenge existing problems and reformulate them in different perspectives.
  • Many EMs are tempted to, as managers, always have answers and therefore, will always dwell into the solution space. However, as you move up, knowing the answer will be less important than asking the right questions.
  • Be patient. In the solution space, the feedback loop is much shorter than in the problem space. Feedback in the problem space is often delayed and multidirectional (from your team, boss, and peers).

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