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Time Demands on Leaders
Do leaders have time for deep work?
A very common thread that I hear from lots of technology leaders is their inability to find any time for deep thinking. By deep thinking, I’m referring to spending time on tasks such as forming a multi-year strategic vision or contemplating a major architectural change. To really think through these types of things takes lots of uninterrupted time during which you can explore those ideas of how one change might impact another and so on. In programming we think of this type of logical branching as cyclomatic complexity, which is the number of linearly independent paths through a program's code. To keep that in one’s head while working takes serious concentration. Pulling out of that state to answer questions leads to a lot of lost productivity. According to a University of California Irvine study, “it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.”
One of the books that regularly makes my suggested reading list is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He defines deep work as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task and gives four rules for improving: 1) work deeply by either scheduling blocks or eliminating shallow work, 2) embrace the boredom when not focused on deep work in order to rejuvenate, 3) quit social media - self explanatory, and 4) drain the shallows using techniques such as detailed scheduling or determining how deep you can go on any one task. Like lots of other folks, I too struggle with finding time for deep work while in operating roles. As a consultant and instructor, I had much greater flexibility to block out large chunks of time for thinking, writing, coding, etc.
One of the big reasons for not being able to find time for deep work as an operator in a company was the nearly constant demand for 30-60 min blocks of time either in group meetings or one-on-one (1:1) meetings with bosses, peers, and team members. If you have 7 direct reports and 5 peers, you’re spending upwards of 20% of your week in 1:1s before adding in the staff meetings, project update meetings, coordination meetings, etc. When doing similar math, other companies have taken drastic measures such as pushing the reset button on meetings. Shopify famously deleted 322,000 hours of meetings in January and has recently unveiled a new tool that assigns a cost to scheduled meetings.
An Australian telecoms company, Telstra, took a different tactic to help unburden leaders and split the leadership role into two. Their approach was to delayer the traditional hierarchy by creating groups and chapters, headed up by ‘leaders of work’ and ‘leaders of people’ respectively. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Spotify Scaling Model introduced by Henrik Kniberg & Anders Ivarsson in Oct 2012 with a division of chapters and guilds. Although according to Spotify-insider, Jeremiah Lee, they don’t use the model themselves. In Telstra’s model, groups are where the work gets done and thus a group leader is a leader of work; whereas, chapters are where the people are housed, coached, and cared for and is led by a leader of people. This split model of leading work vs leading people is not new and has been around in consulting organizations for decades. An article in HBR by Lynda Gratton, an academic researcher, and Diane Gherson, former CHRO at IBM, reviews not only Telstra’s approach but several other companies. Gratton and Gherson identify that management has been on a multi-decade path of sweeping changes starting with reengineering, then digitization, followed by agile, and most recently remote work. Dramatically transforming the job of managers along three dimensions: power, skills, and structure. They conclude that most managers are struggling to keep up and a crisis is looming. Organizations that are going to be successful need to “help managers develop new skills, rewire systems and processes to support their work better, and even radically redefine managerial responsibilities to meet the new priorities of the era.”
While I can see some strong arguments for people sharing responsibilities for what we’ve traditionally thought of as a single role, I’m not sure that I would split a tech leader’s role by managing work vs. managing people. Those two tasks seem too intricately related to me. An alternative split would be something that we see in most U.S. military units where there is a commissioned officer and noncommissioned officer paired in most commands. For example, an Army company command is usually a Captain, which is a commissioned officer, and their partner is a First Sergeant, which is a noncommissioned officer (NCO). At the battalion level, the Battalion Commander, usually a Lieutenant Colonel, is paired with a Battalion Command Sergeant Major. In 2019, the top NCO and advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell, stated "Once commanders have trust, they can extend their reach at the operational and tactical levels, because they have noncommissioned officers who can execute leader duties, as well as the normal managerial duties in taking care of troops." The separation between the officer and NCO duties isn’t written in stone. In fact an article on The Role of the Army Noncommissioned Officer found on the Defense Technical Information Center (apps.dtic.mil) website states, “When it comes to Leadership the difference in Commissioned Officer and the Non-Commissioned Officers Role has changed significantly since the early creation of the Army and more so as we emerge through current conflicts changing what each one are more and more responsible for. The two appear to be so close in line with each other that sometimes it is hard to distinguish who is really leading the soldiers.”
For technical leaders, one way to emulate the U.S. military officer and NCO relationship is to have an engineering manager paired with an architect. In some cases this would be an engineering line manager and a software architect or tech lead. In other cases it might be a senior director manager and a systems architect. Just as in the military, this pairing would change knowledge, title, and expertise based on the demands of the role. For leading a squad you need a line manager and likely a tech lead. For an entire department you might need a VP and a principal engineer. There are many other ways that you could come up with a pairing of leaders to help separate the sometimes frenetic pace of transactions needed for coordination, planning, and execution from the deeper thinking needed for strategic planning, developing a vision, and designing an architecture.
As a leader in today’s organizations that are complex and highly focused on efficient delivery, you probably are finding little time for deep thinking. If so, you’re not alone. Instead of giving up on the idea of deep work, think about ways you can share leadership responsibility with others in a manner that either gives you time for deep work or outsources the deep thinking to them. Let this division of leadership labor play to your strengths. If you enjoy the transactional nature of lots of interactions with people, handle that yourself. If instead you enjoy the deep thinking involved in setting strategy, focus on that. Find a partnership with a senior engineer, architect, chief of staff, strategy & ops person, etc. that compliments your skills. The solution might be a pair of leaders dividing the tasks, not just a single super human.