Friday, December 28, 2012

Re-Run: Picking Your Battles: Letting things go v. lettings things drop

This may come as a surprise, but you cannot control everything.

I spend a lot of time each day desperately trying to remember that fact.

My weakness aside, a lot of stuff happens in a work day when you're the boss; a million little decisions need to be made, and you make them, sometimes aware of it, and sometimes not. Things are bound to irritate you. Over time, they may, in fact, fill you with wrath.

Rather than turn into a large green copyrighted character with anger management issues, you need to look at something no one ever really discussed with me about management: when to let things go as opposed to letting things drop.

Now, semantically, that sort of sounds the same. "Let it go" and "Drop it" both are things you tell a dog to do who has absconded with your fine silver ladle. For purposes of this article, we're not talking about a Great Dane and expensive silverware, we're looking at the concepts of what your ego can allow to pass over and through you, and what you know is important but is not as important as other things that you can drop.  In the first case, you're letting things go that aren't as important, in the second case, you're holding onto things so important that it's okay to let go of other important things.

Letting things go, of the two, is probably the easiest...when you're not emotionally engaged in the problem. For example: a team you depend on changes the code you depend on from them without telling you for the hundredth time. At this point, you're pretty sure they aren't thinking outside their own box, and it's probably pissing you off that you have to spend thirty minutes with the team figuring out that is actually the problem (and not your teams' recently checked in code), then another twenty minutes to an hour waiting for the folks on their team to get back to their desks from lunch or a meeting to discuss the issue, then another twenty or so minutes proving the problem is on their end, followed by a hasty apology and then code work on the part of both teams to resolve. Upon querying those involved, this is not malicious. Steps put in place to minimize this damage/time taken in this process is working. It's not legal to choke co-workers. 

You have to let it go.

If you can think of other ways to optimize the solution, great, implement them. But if you've done all you can, you cannot control everything...its going to happen again. Take a deep breath. Find a nice pillow. Scream into the pillow. Let it go.

The reason allowing things to drop is so much harder is because you have more of an illusion of control over the situation than you do in the "let it go" situation. Pretend, a moment, that what you're managing are fine china plates (I know, silverware, now plates, my brain is throwing a fancy cocktail party and apparently I'm not invited), and you're juggling those plates. Now imagine that a circumstance has occurred to throw in another, larger, but even more precious plate into your juggling routine--maybe your boss tells you this is "the highest priority!"; or the front end servers have crashed and the team that normally manages them isn't available, so your team is on point; or the freaking president of the company has his car here to test out your service first hand and your team needs to do the best possible job of their lives on changing his oil and rotating his tires. Well, not his, but his car's.

You didn't screw up. You were juggling what you were told to juggle. There's a wiggling voice in the back of your head that says "maybe I can juggle this one, too" while the reasonable voice is shrieking "let something drop before you break EVERYTHING."There's this feeling that, maybe, you can do this, too, when if you were advising a friend about such things you'd be unloading plates from her hand faster than she could grab them back from you because what she's suggesting is insane.

But if you don't have someone to help you balance the load, you are, at least figuratively, going to be dropping some things that, up until the crisis, you thought important. This may break those things--their deadlines will be missed, it will set the team back time as they transition between that item and others, an opportunity to provide information to get better or furhter sales might be lost--but a rational person would look at all the plates in the air and pick the one that you need to let go of, even if it might shatter, so you don't drop and shatter everything else.

This is balance for your team, of course; they have a finite amount they can work in a day or week. But this is also balance for YOU. As a manager, you often feel important because people treat you as an important person. But the reason you are important is because you make the hard decisions and have to stand by them. You make them with input from others (you'd be stupid not to), but you do make those decisions. You choose which plate drops so the other plates can keep being juggled safely.

This is very, very hard to do.

You can cushion the landing of an item you let drop by communicating like a crazy person, so that it comes as no surprise to all involved. You can create contingencies for when to recover from the risks created by dropping that item, and when you can pick it--or whatever it turns into--up again.

But you still have to figuratively have something in your hand that you open your fingers on and watch/hear plummet to the floor.

Letting things go is about recognizing that external forces over which you have little to no control force your hand, and letting go of your emotional load related to that issue can make you happier and more capable. Dropping things is about recognizing that external forces over which you have little to not control force your hand, but you have to pick which items you're working on suffer because of that interruption...and then let go of the emotional load related to the issue as it plummets so you can be happier and more capable.

Once you recognize these are things you will have to do--that you will disappoint someone (even and often yourself), you no longer have two brutal things happening to you at any have two, brutal options to use to help make you and your team more effective.

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