One At a Time (guest post)

This is a guest post by Stephen Bailey. Stephen lives in South Africa, and he has been a C++ Developer for 10 years, and a team leader of 25 people for a year. His main interests are with function programming and Erlang, and he has his own blog at

I have had the opportunity to do some Team Lead mentoring and this has pushed me to reflect back on my time as a Team Lead, and try to extract some lessons that I learned, and some of the things that I just plainly got wrong (isn’t hindsight a beautiful thing?).

One of the things I have reflected on is the concept of concentrating on only a small number of goals, where small should be as close to 1 as humanly possible, and dedicating all your non day-to-day time to this.

Reality Check

Okay before you panic and tell me that that is insanity, the very nature of Team Leading is that you are pulled in many directions because there are multiple different activities your team is working on – so by definition you are already working on N things concurrently.

That is not what I am talking about… I am talking about the work that you do that is not part of the production line work.

Work-bensutherland-2430272671 Let’s face it, you do not do the work, your job is to facilitate the people who are actually doing the work.

Now, if all you are doing is steeping yourself in the work that they are doing, you are missing a huge opportunity to add value outside of the production line. As a team lead you are one of these people who have been placed in the unique position to be able to operate in the white space on the organogram  – but that is a whole blog article of its own – I digress.

What I am talking about, is looking at your team, and choosing only 1 thing you want to improve. There is always a host of them (tools, salaries, processes, people, feedback, free time, mentoring, knowledge sharing, skills matrix, training… etc. etc., the list is endless, and for each of these items there a host of things that you can do about them.) And my point is this: typically you try to do a small bit of each of these each day – if you get the chance. Well stop itpick just one and then do that until it is done, and adds value.

But what about all the other things I could be doing ?

Let’s pretend for a second that you never did anything except watch the production line… Would the work really stop ? So don’t get so stressed. If you don’t start X, Y and Z people will still keep working. Instead of giving people bits and promises of X, Y and Z rather give them, a single complete A, which is ready to add value – now. Otherwise, really all you are doing is just distracting them with promises of things that might help someday.. if you ever get the time to complete them that is.

The benefits

Those who are not team leads will not understand this, and those who are new to it are shocked by the reality of this, but typically when you get home from a very hard and busy day at work, you sit back and panic a bit because you are not sure if you really did anything that day.

So apart of the warm fuzzy feeling you will get when you get home, having actually made some progress on an actual task, you get the more important benefit that your team is seeing that you are doing something to make things better for them… And that is the goal. Remember: They do the work, not you.

Birds-peterkaminski-150042887 Beyond that, they also have an idea of where you would like to see improvements. So when they get some free time, they will likely push in the same direction. It almost sounds like organically growing vision to me… nice!

This was nicely expressed in a blog post by Jason Cohen.

There's always an infinite amount of work. Remind yourself that no matter how hard you work, there's way too much to do. Take a break and take care of yourself. Do a few concrete things every day. Realize that procrastination is healthy and useful. Success doesn't come because you did everything, it's because you did the important things.

Enjoy. You have a great job – go make people’s lives better !

(images by mshades and Ben Sutherland and Peter Kaminski)

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