I got a lot of feedback that the post on role shapes was useful to people, but it's only one metaphor, and no metaphor is complete. The subtractive way of thinking about work simplifies away many aspects of development: it ignores the way the needed work can change and morph over time, it ignores the way that good decisions in one area can change the work in another, and it postulates a "set of all work" as though it's a knowable thing. Other than trivially simple projects, the set of all work is not something you can just write down with confidence. A huge part of the challenge of running a project is the skill of sussing out what needs to be done in the first place, and reconciling world views between teammates so you can have productive conversations about the work.
When I think about this what comes to mind is a city. The city has development that needs doing, and also ongoing maintenance. Fires happen, bridges collapse, stuff like that. Your job, your whole team, is to array yourselves around the city to get the work done. How do you lay yourselves out?
Every place you can stand in the city involves a tradeoff between direct agency and line of sight. By "direct agency" I mean the ability to actually do things, like fix broken water mains or build a garage or pave a road. By "line of sight" I mean the set of all things you can see from where you're standing, and how well you can see them
If your project is very small, then in the metaphor it's a little village. If it's really tiny maybe it's just a little shed. And maybe there's just two of you building the shed. There aren't that many perspectives you can have on a shed. You will sometimes see things differently, because you're standing on different sides of the shed, or one of you is on a ladder looking at the roof while the other is inside looking at the interior. But it's easy to reach a shared fundamental understanding. You can get blueprints and spend half an hour looking at them and agreeing on them.
Maybe your project is a town, and your team is still small enough that everyone knows everyone else. This is a nice place to be. Everyone knows the overall structure of the town, where the town center is, and there aren't so many people working that anyone can't keep it all in his head. Maybe you've got thirty people building roads and buildings, but with just a few people doing planning and coordination and occasional consensus-building among the whole group, shared perspective is still very possible to maintain, and you're able to spend the bulk of your time on the actual building work itself.
As your project approaches city-size, your team grows past Dunbar's number and you don't all know each other anymore. Furthermore, the project itself is too big for any one person to hold in his head. You have to array yourselves around the city to get the best coverage you can. You need a lot of people in the streets so they can do the work of building, but it's impossible for them to all talk to each other at once. So you put people in buildings up a bit higher to help coordinate entire blocks. And then people up even higher to help coordinate whole neighborhoods.
This metaphor is about perspectives. Consider three people at various heights.
Let's say the street has a few massive, car-destroying potholes in it. The guy down on the street can see it, and it's his whole world. He's shouting at the woman on top of the yellow building about it. She can kind of see them, enough that they might catch her attention but not so much that she can tell how big a deal they are. And the guy on top of the skyscraper? He can't see them at all.
But let's say the guy on the ground is about to close the road to repave it. He can see a couple streets down in any direction, and across the park, but otherwise just has to take it on faith that it's a good time to start paving. The woman on the yellow building can do a bit more scouting, but not a ton. The guy on top of the orange skyscraper, on the other hand, can see if twenty blocks away someone else has closed a road and begun directing traffic right towards this intersection. He can see if there's a crew ten blocks away heading over to dig up the road to do some electrical work. He can see if other paving crews are about ready to start using the city's limited supply of steamrollers. It's all a bit distant to him, so he can't see details, but he can see it, and he can warn the other two and call across to others on other rooftops and coordinate.
Especially in larger companies, it's pretty common for people on the street to look up at the people on the skyscrapers and say "That doesn't seem so hard. I could do his job." And it's true that paving roads is hard work, and standing on a skyscraper looking around may not look like much. The jobs are challenging for different reasons. The guy on the street has a straightforward job, but the guy on the skyscraper does not, and that's what makes it a challenge.
The guy in the street may do a lot of very skilled work, but his responsibilities are easy to describe. His culpability is very constrained. He's there to pave the road. He is a craftsman, and the challenge of his work is the challenge of craft. The guy on top of the skyscraper doesn't have such a clear role. His job is to make sure everything goes well in the area he can see. That's very nebulous. A lot of the time that means he has to run back and forth on the roof of the skyscraper keeping tabs on everything he can see. But sometimes it means taking the elevator down to the ground floor and getting out there and helping pave. Sometimes it means getting over to another building roof to help with a specific project and then getting back to the skyscraper as fast as he can. The hard part is knowing in the moment which action is best. The work is figuring out the work.
I had a manager once who joked that he began every day with eight full days of work to get done, and the challenge was deciding which one day of work to do. I like that, and in my experience eight's about the right number. When that number gets much higher - when I feel like I have a hundred days of work I want to do every day - I know it's time to delegate, to get more people on rooftops near me, because I'm leaving too much on the floor when I have to triage that aggressively.
For everyone, at all levels, whether you're on the tallest rooftop or down working in the sewers, the imperative is this: you need to understand the nature of the city. If you're on the street, understanding the nature of the city means talking to people up higher and asking them: What do you see? Tell me about the neighborhoods I can't see. How is it all fitting together? Even if you just go on paving, you'll understand the context in which you're doing it. You'll start to see the bigger picture. And you'll be able to bring your up-close-and-detailed experience to bear on those larger patterns to refine them and help the team make better decisions.
If you're on a rooftop, understanding the nature of the city means not forgetting that a city is made up of a million details. Most of the time you're looking far in the distance for the broad patterns, but every once in a while you have to get in the elevator, ride it all the way down, and see up close how the paving's getting done. Not because you're going to do a great job paving - you'll probably be awful at it, compared to the people doing it every day - but because your broadest observations are no good if you've forgotten how asphalt works, how paving works, how the real work of building gets done.
And no matter where you are it means realizing that you're all looking at the same city, but from different vantages and angles. At the risk of metaphor overload, there's an ancient Indian story of the Blind men and the Elephant. Several blind men are presented with an elephant and asked to describe it. One feels its tusk and says the elephant is like a solid pipe. Another feels the trunk and says the elephant is like a tree branch. Yet another feels the ear and says the elephant is like a hand fan. Another feels the tail and says the elephant is like a rope. And so on.
This extends to the city view. If you're on one rooftop and someone else is on another, you might both be able to see the same third building. And you might say it's looking great and she might say it's a disaster. It doesn't mean one of you is wrong, and arguing about it is as useful as the blind men arguing about the elephant. Instead, realize that your perspective on everything is specific to your vantage and your angle and is fundamentally incomplete. Embrace the opportunity to talk to others so you can incorporate their perspectives, too. And if yours and theirs differ, consider that they may both at once be true.
Subscribe to Made of Metaphors
Get new posts sent to you. If you change your mind later, unsubscribe with one click.
You're a member of this community! Use the buttons on the right to vote on this post or share it with others. Or leave a reply below.