Be the Wall

The other week, I had a one-on-one with an engineer. They were working through their approach to a project. There were a few options the engineer already had in mind for how to break down the epic, and they were thinking through the best approach for the work. They had more data about some of these approaches, but they were only scratching the surface of others. Some of the approaches were riskier but had upside; others were safer and cheaper. I knew none of this when I started the conversation. When we finished, they had a few next steps including some metrics to track down and some people to consult.

At the start of every one-on-one, I am trying to assess what the engineer wants from the conversation and what the team needs to happen in the conversation. It’s easy to go into one-on-ones feeling like the other person is looking for advice. It’s easy to think “this is clearly a problem they are trying to solve, and I can help them solve it!” But sometimes (re: often) (your mileage may vary) you get to be the person they’re bouncing their ideas off of.

Be the Wall

When your teammates are coming to you with a well-formed sense of the problem and potential solutions, be the wall. Your teammate has their tennis racket out, they have their sleeve of tennis balls, and they’re not looking for someone to return their shot. They’re just looking for someone to reflect their ideas back and give them a stronger sense of what they’ve been thinking about.

To be the wall, you need to be an active listener. Find the boundaries in ideas. You can ask “how would you compare the benefits of the first path and the second path?” or “Which of these ideas build on each other vs which ones are parallel tracks?” Sometimes, simply repeating works out well. Use phrases like “so, let me see if I understand…” or “I’d like to try and say that in my own words to make sure we’re talking about the same thing”.

This works for a couple of reasons. For one, verbalizing things activates a part of our brains that writing or merely thinking doesn’t hit. And people are less inclined to talk out loud to themselves (although, I recommend people do more of this, too!) Secondly, your active listening can help your team member find the strong and weaker parts of their idea. This will allow them to return to their own thoughts and have a better idea of where to spend their time.

But wait! Aren’t I, as the manager, here to solve problems? Shouldn’t my vast array of knowledge and experience be helpful? Eh, maybe. But maybe not. If you are building a team for the long-term, you can’t be the one to solve every problem. In fact, you can’t even be the one to advise on every problem. When your teammates are close, take the time to focus on strengthening their convictions and perhaps refining their thought processes, so that they can solve bigger, more challenging, and more engaging problems over time. Help them get the experience you’ve gained.

The next time you’re in a one-on-one and your team member seems to want to talk out their approach, be the wall. And watch their shot get better and better over time.

Dan Ubilla is obsessed with the craft of engineering management

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