Saturday, 7 September 2013

On Being Replaceable, Role Traps and Adding Value

I said to one of my managers several years ago that one my main goals towards the team and organisation was to make myself replaceable.

He nearly fell off his chair....

As I was a leader within the organisation - if I become replaceable what does it mean for the position I have or the value of the work I'm doing? Oh, I say this to most managers (partly as a test :) )

It is important to distinguish how people are viewed within teams, projects and organisations. In this context there are two main views:
  1. What they bring in terms of personal skill, knowledge and capability.
  2. What they bring in terms of operational responsibility or ability.
Where teams and organisations have roles or specialized people (e.g. testers) then there is a risk of attaching someone's behaviour to that of the role.
Or the other way around, 
The skill of a role is often thought of in terms of a person/s that perform it.
(or have performed it). 
Experience is implicitly labelled as an exemplar. 
In the past I have sat in a coordination meeting with a team and asked an incisive question such as, "Customer X have feature Y adapted/changed in their network and so your development of feature Z should also look into interactions between features Y & Z". This means that a potential risk is reduced - or at least some investigation is started to reduce a potential risk.

Now, if I miss a similar meeting with another team, there might be such a question not asked that might mean such a risk is not caught or it is thought about later, meaning some additional work. (Note: These coordination meetings might be some form of reference/project or expert aid to the teams.)
Question: Who was the target audience for my question? 
Many people would think it was the team doing development of feature Z. My target audience is everyone though - it's not just about the question, it's also why it is asked (some might call that the context) - in this case to help all realize something they hadn't seen beforehand.

I don't ever see myself as the person who asks questions others don't - but more as someone who might help others ask better/different questions next time. If I haven't passed on some of that capability then I've failed.

Adding Value
There are two main ways I add to the team, project or organisation.

  • I point out the differences between what I am bringing as me, and what I am bringing as "performing role X". They might overlap at times, and not at others - and it's important to help others with that difference.
  • I ask "why?" a lot. Not to be a pain (even if that's how it might sometimes be seen), but to help understanding.
But, how is this "adding value"? It's highlighting behaviours that others can adopt that are not "owned" by a role.

The "Why?" Question
One of the most common questions I ask is "why?". It's a sign of wanting to learn what someone else is thinking. It's a sign of wanting to flush out, and clarify, assumptions. The "why" question is one of the cogs of dialogue and understanding.

So, if I am the only one who is looking out for dialogue and understanding then there might be a problem in the organisation. However, in my experience, someone has attached the "why" question or "the types of question that I ask" to the role I had - so it becomes "role ABC asks those type of questions".

That's where I need to remind people around me that these are not my questions, I don't get territorial about such questions, and that if I'm not around and the question pops into your head, go ahead and ask it.

Learning Organisations
Organisations, teams or projects that want to grow and learn must be very careful about roles -> sure, if someone is the designated decision maker let them make it. Until that point, there's usually plenty that can be done without the decision-maker - including asking questions.

Sometimes people (teams) need to be given permission to think for themselves - strange as that may sound.

  • It's not what skills you bring to the table, it's what you leave behind for others after you've gone.
  • It's not what attitude you bring to the party, it's the positive change in attitude you leave behind that's important. (Sometimes, that means more people are prepared to ask, "why?") 
A typical question I get about achieving replaceability is: don't you do yourself out of a job, or no one needs you after you've improved others?

In a team, or organisation, that has a constant ambition of improvement that is never a problem - there is always a new problem to work on. As Weinberg said (I think), when the most important problem gets solved, problem #2 gets a promotion. Sure, it's a different problem and may take you out of your comfort zone, but ultimately, that's how you improve.

Some people treat knowledge as power and hold onto it. Unfortunately, those are the folks that can become one-trick ponies or get bypassed by progress...

And finally...
So, to me, being replaceable is positive - it means I've added value - it means I've given others a tool for thinking more clearly - it means I can carry on improving, learning and adding value.

Are you adding value? 
Are you leaving something on the table for others when you move on?