On exceeding capacity

We completed performance evaluations in January, and one of the conversations I’ve been having with my team members is, “what can you do to be a star in 2017?” It’s an important discussion to have, for a couple of reasons. First off, most people haven’t even considered the question. They have the idea that stardom is some inherent quality, and that it will present itself naturally (or not) without any special attention. Secondly, they generally have no idea what constitutes being a star, or how to get there, other perhaps than working 80 hour weeks (which absolutely isn’t the point). The goal of the conversation is to help them understand what stars do that’s different, to talk through different options, and to give them a pathway.

Every job has a set of requirements, well-defined or not. For engineers it usually boils down to completing technical tasks quickly and with high quality. Yes, this is a terrible oversimplification, but at a basic level all engineers are expected to add some amount of raw engineering capacity to a team’s total. High performers add more capacity, low performers add less (or even subtract capacity). This isn’t restricted to individual contributors – the addition of a competent manager to an organization increases the number of people and projects which can be managed effectively, and removing a manager decreases overall management capacity.

It can be kind of depressing to think this way, since it sounds like an argument that people are essentially replaceable parts – perhaps a little better at this skill, a little worse at that one, but not unique in their contributions. And in fact, in larger organizations the explicit goal is to prevent any one person from being irreplaceable (reducing the so-called “bus factor”). A team in which only one person can fix a particular type of bug or complete a particular type of task is especially brittle, and at risk if the person goes on vacation, takes a sick day, leaves the company, or is just busy doing something else.

Which brings us back to stars. These people do everything that’s in their job description, and do it well – a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. The thing that makes them stars is that in addition to the high quality capacity they bring to the team, they also do things that wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t been there. They initiate and drive projects that no one else would have thought of, or been able to do. They improve their team’s or organization’s productivity through creation or adoption of new tools. They hire great teams in difficult markets. Instead of thinking “what a pain, someone should really fix ____,” they go ahead and do it themselves. Sometimes they’re thinking of the larger impact, but frequently things just start working better around them as a result of their having scratched a personal itch.

As a manager, it’s interesting to have this conversation with my team, and to watch the lights come on. Oh, you mean that just doing what I’ve been told to do isn’t a path to outsized business impact? At this point, we typically have a conversation about their personal interests, what bugs them about the status quo, and try to brainstorm areas in which they could apply some leverage. This also frequently leads to mentoring on project management skills in a highly relevant, concrete context – the best conditions in which to learn.

Once you realize all of this, of course, you start wondering about it for yourself as well. What would constitute outsized business impact for me? What are my opportunities? This becomes more difficult as you gain seniority, since your job requirements become vaguer, and the standards for success higher – at some point, “outsized business impact” is table stakes. And so you talk to your boss, discuss larger company goals, and think through possible strategies. It’s easy to get caught in the tactical trap, focusing on emergencies and small local wins. Of course you need to do these – that’s how you fulfill your capacity requirements. But the question for you is the same as for your team – what will you do that wouldn’t have happened without you?

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One thought on “On exceeding capacity

  1. Love the idea that “stardom” is in reach of all employees – and that you enable your team to envision that!

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