Up, Down. Both, And.

15 Aug 2021

Two concepts are becoming more and more important, in my view, to the success of organizations. These two are synthesis, and "both, and" thinking. Academically, these are ideas popularized by Hegel, and Kierkegaard, while the latter also has a long history in Eastern philosophical traditions (e.g. yin and yang).

Without synthesis we get stuck, we stop progressing when we come into contact with new ideas. Both, and thinking starts reframing entire problem vectors and gives us a vision for a way through. I'll never forget the best manager I worked for challenging me with Both, And thinking.

This past week I listened to a new podcast on Staff Eng by Mason Jones. And I had an opportunity to read an older piece from Chelsea Troy on a few management ideas. There is a specific point where they intersect that I find instructive to the concept of synthesis, and "both, and" and want to explore here.

I really appreciated Chelsea's piece because it lays out a re-imagination of what front line management could look like, without pulling any punches about the realities of the job. I don't want to steal her thunder, but at its core is claims: "As a manager you have to manage problems up, not just manage them down".

At some point in the management chain, people are not interested in the problems that the front line folks have, the folks doing the critical jobs that make the hierarchical machine function. For those folks, the "lower in the chain" (e.g. their immediate manager vs at the executive level) that interest is lost, the worse it is for them. At some point, management has to advocate for them. Without that constant force in an organization the morale of front-line workers wanes, and they eventually leave, taking their knowledge about the org with them. This is a reality I have witnessed time and time again.

After all, these are knowledge worker jobs where experience and creativity are necessary elements for a good job. I know when I feel an employer does not value those in me, I start polishing a resume. Definitely read Chelsea's piece for how she imagines we structure front line management, I heartily endorse it.

Mason's experience at Credit Karma gave me another block in the puzzle—how do you elevate that feedback past line management? How do you ensure that it moves up the chain of hierarchical management further? He shared that Credit Karma absolutely has OKRs that come down from management. But those are only a percentage of the quarterly OKRs that are commitments. The rest come from the teams themselves. The share of commitments that come from the top versus the team can, and should, ebb and flow due to where teams finds themselves, and where executives see the company in the broader landscape. This structure demonstrates that management is committed to advocate for the perspective of the folks who are doing the front line work, daily. And that the commitment extends to the executive level.

These are the kind of synthesis, the kind of both, and thinking that we're going to need to ensure consistent working relationships that, not only can last, but are fruitful! Managers have to advocate for both their company, and the people they manage. If the organization refused to accept that managers have to advocate for their people, well, go read Chelsea's piece on that. Organizations have to act in good faith with their line workers and synthesize those folks ideas and experiences with what middle management and executives are looking to do. Without that synthesis everyone will get deadlocked, unable to progress on the critical issues the organization is facing.

Management will not have to question whether or not their critical people are engaged. They can demonstrate engagement based on the OKRs they receive from teams themselves. Are they ambitious? Are they tired? You will have some evidence to combine with your gut feelings. How does this compare to last quarter? Last year? Management doesn't have to be based on only emotional reactions, or only (at times, contrived) measurements, but rather on a partnership-level with those doing the front line work.

Engineers, not to mention other departments, customer support and QA, are not left wondering whether their perspectives are being heard by their immediate managers. And they don't have to guess how much those managers have to fight for those perspectives to be heard. There is a clear and agreed upon process to roll those concerns up for these teams to define their own work, their own future.

If you are a manager, director, or executive, and you don't think your employees leave in order to get a chance to define their own work, you should take some skip level meetings, build some trust, and get their perspectives. After all, "People don't leave their companies, they leave their managers."