Space Required

6 Oct 2020

There is a unique failure mode that I have experienced: trying too hard. I never saw this one coming, and I never expected it. "Trying too hard" means that you have a tight grip over each aspect of every project. The biggest symptom I have experienced from this failure mode: The Bystander Effect.

"Bystander effects" are when folks on the team wait for someone to tell them what to do or to make a decision. It is a lack of initiative. The team expects the leader to do all that. And this leader doesn't have to be a manager or "the boss", it can be a fellow team member. Trying too hard can result in unexpectedly becoming a gatekeeper. Everything needs their stamp, their confirmation, their inclusion. The team learns "this is how we do things here" and waits.

If you are seeing bystander effects, and lack of initiative, the antidote is space. Space is required for people to take ownership. Space is required for people to grow. Space is required for people to make improvements, and to improve themselves.

Creating space looks like putting in guardrails and explicitly stating your expectations. However, space is not a vacuum. It will be rocky at first, and folks will say it feels like a vacuum. Stating expectations is the tool to align everyone's behavior, this is the hands-off part (e.g. give the problem, and loosely define the process). The guardrails are where you want the team to include you in the process again. That can be varied based on your situation and may include: "if the solution will cost more than $X", "if the solution will take longer than Y", or when there are multiple teams and boundaries involved "if the solution requires changes to interfaces or APIs that other teams manage".

A good test of whether or not your team is set up for success and owning their own work is: can you go on a two week vacation and when you return you see progress.