The most important career skill for this century: fixing what’s broken

Companies are a complicated beasts. Reporting lines, structures, process, heirarchy, politics… finding your way through the corporate maze and working out how to get things done and ship meaningful work can be tough.

If you look around in any company, I’m sure you’ll see things that don’t make sense. You’ll see ineffective managers and inefficient processes. You’ll see failures and you’ll see waste.

When you look attentively and deliberately at the world around you, you will see so many things that are broken or could be improved. The more you look, the better you will become at seeing. You’ll undoubtedly see more things than you’ll ever have the time to work on.

Your first responsibility is to look. Your second responsibility is to act. If you see something broken, try to fix it – even if it’s not your job. Avoid ignoring the problem or building a complex workaround – try to fix the problem at it’s root.

If you really can’t fix the problem, then accept it as a constraint and move on. Leverage the constraint; use it to help you ship meaningful work.

In a world where software continues to automate generic factory-like work the most valuable skill becomes the ability to solve new and evolving problems… So if you have a choice between staring at your email inbox and fixing something that’s broken, what do you do?

The space between

Web developers can tell you that application speed is all about latency. It’s about the speed between component A and B; the distance between this server and that one; the response time of that API. In other words, it’s about the space between.

In organisations complexity is compounded in the spaces between – the spaces between teams, between components and between divisions. The trouble is the spaces between are often a no-mans land that is no-one’s responsibility in particular… but it’s the spaces between that matter if you want to get anything meaningful done.

Factories build detailed processes to help their employees navigate the spaces between teams to get things done. But what if there is no process for what you need to do? What if there is no roadmap to tell you how to get there?

If you understand the spaces between, you don’t need a playbook or a manual. When you step in and own the space between, you can make things happen and get stuff done.

The spaces between are your opportunity to do something new and valuable.

Not my job

Not my job
Not my job

One of my first jobs was as a bartender in a pub. My supervisor, Ted, had what I then thought was a compulsive neatness habit. If he saw a chair was out of place, he would straighten it. If there was an empty glass on the table, he would take it. A cigarette on the floor, he would pick it up. He couldn’t abide it if the other staff didn’t do this too. He’d say to us “don’t just turn a blind eye because you’re a bartender and not a cleaner. We work as a team here; your job is everything.”

The bigger your organisation becomes; the more distributed your team or the more defined the roles, the easier it becomes to think “that’s not by job”. Just like the guy driving the line-marking car in the photo above, who figured getting out of the truck to move the branch was not his job.

What would you think of a striker who stood by and let the ball roll into the goals because the goalkeeper was on the ground? It’s not his job to protect the goal, right?

If you are working on a team building a product or an experience for a customer, then your job is to bring them that experience, and to have it be the best experience it can be. Your job is not just testing or writing code; it’s not just writing the help copy or managing the DNS configs. They are just things that you’re good at – your job is the product. If you see something that’s broken, then it’s your job to fix it. Your job is everything.

So when you see that crooked stool or that empty glass – what will you do?

Pay off your debt

Photo from here.

In Agile development teams we talk about technical debt. A debt is basically anything you owe the codebase; anything you need to pay back. When you make a decision to ship less-than-pefect code to meet a deadline, the less-than-pefect code is the debt you have to pay back. When a junior programmer is left alone and writes poor code in a different style, their code becomes a debt – something you need to fix later.

You can build up debt outside of your codebase too. Every team, every product and every project accumulates debt every day.

Every band-aid you put on a broken process is adding to your debt.

Every time you avoid having a hard conversation with an under-performing employee it’s adding to your debt.

Every compromise you make is adding to your debt.

You can ignore debt, but you can’t avoid it forever. And debt earns interest and generates yet more debt – and it’s probably generating more than you think.

Debt is a weight around your neck; it’s a burden, it’s baggage, and it gets in your way. Instead of ignoring it, start paying off your debt.

Adam Smith once said: “What can be added to the happiness of a man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?”

Seek understanding – not insurance

When you communicate, you have two responsibilities:
1. communicate your message
2. ensure the message is understood

#1 is easy – but it is #2 that counts.

You can do #1 and forget or skip #2 – but you haven’t really communicated. Saying words out loud is not communication – it’s just making noise. Communication implies an understanding from both the initiator and receiver of the communication.

You can also do #1 in such a way to make sure that #2 doesn’t happen – that’s called covering your arse.

The focus manifesto

Do you ever feel like you’re rushing from one thing to the next, without really doing any one thing properly? Are you running from one social appointment to the next without taking the time and attention to enjoy each one? Is your desk like a constant fireworks show of new emails, instant messages, phone calls, sms notifications, flashing lights and pinging noises, all begging for your attention?

This is sadly all very, very familiar to me.

I just finished reading Leo Babauta’s Focus Manifesto. It’s all about “finding simplicity in the age of distraction”, which screamed out to me straight away. His basic premise is that distractions and noise are killing your creativity and limiting your potential. He argues that the best way to get more done is to do less. Leo talks about being constantly connected to the cloud as an addiction, one that must be treated just like any conventional addiction.

I think I’m often trying to go too fast, without taking the time to really take in what I am doing. This goes for both my work and personal life.

At work, I have a ton of different projects on at once, people coming to me all through the day needing questions answered, issues resolved, priorities decided, and a constant stream of emails, meeting requests, instant messages and phone calls. I quite often leave the office at the end of the day and I’m disappointed and frustrated that I haven’t gotten enough done, even though I know I was working at 110% the whole day. Now I realise that I’m not usually frustrated because I haven’t gotten enough done, but rather because I’ve not gotten the right things done. I can quite easily spend an entire day poring over emails, answering IMs, and sitting in meetings. In fact, there are so many emails that I feel like I’m moving at a hundred miles an hour just to read them all, let alone reply. And at the end of the day, I’ve written and read a lot of emails, but the important stuff hasn’t been looked at. The good stuff… and, you know what, it’s the fun stuff too! But it doesn’t get done, because it’s too easy to get trapped in the distraction trap.

Leo’s focus manifesto has a ton of practical suggestions on how to clear your mind and your desk (figuratively and literally) and focus on the right things. The things you want to be doing – the things that make you happy and satisfied. He also talks about solitude and time for reflection as being super important for recharging your creative batteries.

And best of all – Leo’s book is free!

Starting tomorrow, for example, I’m clearing off all the crap off my desk to create a bit of clean space – and then I’ll be on to my calendar with an axe…

The right to satisfaction

If you’re not happy at work, I think you have two choices. You can either:

  1. take an active role in making things better, or
  2. leave.

Everyone has the right to improve their own situation. If you see problems or difficulties at work, you can raise your voice and help find constructive solutions.

But if you’re going to respond to every initiative with innate cynicism; if you’re going to sit in every meeting and complain about your colleagues; if you’re going to spread rumours and dissatisfaction and nurture dissent, then I think you owe it to yourself to leave. Now.

Life is way to short to sit in a job that leaves you unsatisfied.

The danger of cc and reply-all

I got an email the other day, adressed to me with a mailing list of all the other Product Managers from our site in cc, that started with the words: “Actually, that’s completely wrong.” It was referring to my previous mail to a small group where I had made a comment about the readiness of a particular component to be integrated. It wasn’t just the arrogant, schadenfroh tone that irked me, but the sudden inclusion of the complete mailing list in cc. “Hey look, everyone, he was wrong!”

When you put people in cc on an email, you are making a statement. Always. The cc list can completely change the meaning and intent of an email… Who you include is often almost as important as what you say. So please be careful…

If you write to a colleague to give not-so positive or negative feedback, and you put their manager in cc, it is an escalation. If you don’t put their manager in cc, it is colleague-to-colleague feedback which has a much lower chance of provoking a defensive reaction.

If you write to a colleague to give positive feedback and you put their manager in cc, it can often increase the weight or worth of the feedback significantly.

When you answer an email with a reply all, especialy when you want to critisise or disagree with a point of view, etc, including everyone is a a statement that you want everyone to know that you disagree. This can sometimes be constructive, but if you intend to attack an idea or point out how someone was wrong, it can quickly look immature and cheap. 

Replying all to point out someone’s failure or weakness is like when you used to run to mum and dad as a child to tell on your sister whe she did something she wasn’t supposed to. It might feel satisfying for a minute, but at the end of the day you will end up looking like a child.

Change the unchangeable

In an environment where so many people avoid decisions, shy away from responsibility and avoid asking hard questions, the people who do this well stand out.

Shake a few trees. Take a risk and raise a tough issue. What’s really stopping you? What are you afraid of?

Politics? Don’t want to make an enemy? The times in which trolls and power seekers can gain influence without creating and delivering are slowly but surely coming to an end. The Internet has relativised the playing field, and our creations and art speak for themselves.

Afraid that you’ll look silly or uninformed? If you raise your hand you will almost certainly be wrong from time to time. Maybe even often. But recovering from being wrong with grace and dignity and learning from your failures is far more valuable to you and those around you than sitting silently.

Do you believe it’s unchangeable? That the status quo is unquestionable and immutable? It’s not.

True, you want to pick the battles you can win. But pick one. Try it. Look around you, and pick one thing that has been bugging you but you have always considered unchangeable – then change it.