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Posted on 19 November 2018 by Robert Gormley

Each of these lessons I share with you, I learned while chaperoning my son’s school trip at Wolf Ridge. In this fourth installment of my blog five-part blog series “Lessons Learned from 4th Graders That I Take to Work”, I’ll cover the benefits of allowing your self-formed team to make key decisions by themselves, ultimately instilling confidence and allowing them to perform at their highest level.

Lesson 4: How Stepping Away Can Empower Your Team to Perform

Seeing your child in the full context of their school setting is pretty wonderful, you get to witness them in a whole new light and appreciate (or chastise yourself for) the work you’ve done to help their development. Sometimes you can think about product teams in the same way - you cultivate them, nurture them, and then you set them free to work as you watch from afar. From time to time, you step in as a “parental” figure to help guide your team, but take care that you don’t do this too often as it can back fire. Your team (or your child) can become too reliant on your guidance through tough decisions, a situation that can often lead to team paralysis and can be detrimental to your product team’s velocity.

On the final evening at Wolf Ridge, my son and his group headed down to the lake to canoe, and he and his best friend asked if I would partner up with the two of them. We were all excited about getting into the canoe and taking it for a ride – my son sat in the front of the boat, his best friend in the back, and myself in the middle. As all wise canoers know, the person in the back typically controls navigation while the riders in the middle and front lend support and balance the canoe. As we set off from the dock, the boys were determined to make it across the lake as fast as possible and leave everyone else “in their dust.”

It wasn’t long before the canoe started to veer sharply off course, when the two boys started discussing what needed to be done to correct the problem. They talked about speed, who should be navigating, which side they should paddle on and so forth. All the while, the canoe moved across the lake in a very serpentine fashion, trailing behind many other canoes. Frustrated with our setback, the boys asked me to start paddling as hard and as fast as I could to correct the course of our canoe. Before I knew it, I was giving them orders to help improve their steering and speed, but that did nothing for the smoothness of the ride. After five minutes of directing what to do and still not making much progress toward our destination, I decided to step away from the situation and let the kids figure it out.

We headed back to the dock we started at, and as I jumped out of the canoe, I advised the two of them to work together to determine how to make the canoe ride fun and successful. It wasn’t long after they left the dock when they realized what they were doing wrong and developed the right solution to get them cruising. In no time, they were cutting straight across the lake, passing their friends and laughing the whole way. Aside from losing my weight from the canoe, my son and his best friend figured out a smooth paddling cadence and how to better communicate with each other to correct their errors.

As the two boys approached the other side of the lake, I thought about how often I’ve had the awareness and courage to pull myself away from situations like this at work so my teams could figure things out for themselves. I thought about Spotify and how they describe alignment and autonomy within their Squad Framework. At its best, leaders simply give teams goals and keep them in sync with each other (alignment) and let their teams figure out the how (autonomy). In this way, alignment enables autonomy.

With the intentions my son and his best friend had in the canoe, my involvement should have been simple - get them aligned on their goal and then quickly get out of the way. Just like at the lake, when I’m back in the office, I need to read the situation and know that alignment is my primary responsibility and the team can and will make key decisions on their own. Stepping back and allowing the work group to succeed or fail (and learn) on their own may be difficult, but it’s ultimately what’s best for managing a team…and parenting!  

Previous Lessons Learned:

Robert Gormley is Chief Essentialist of Continuous Quality at Trissential/SQS