People and Things — How different roles interact with them
Having recently completed another PI planning cycle I was doing some retrospection on how it went and admittedly I found this one tough. Thinking through why the answer was painfully obvious, I was performing two roles, which conflicted more than once.
If you read my bio you’ll see a few different roles listed, many held at the same time. I’m currently performing an SM and Architect role, both of which I thoroughly enjoy, so this article is not a complaint or cry for help (though as an SM I legally have to acknowledge the anti-pattern of double jobbing). Instead I wanted to share a concern that arose as I was thinking through why doing both is so tough. That concern is that the two roles are diametrically opposed in terms of their focus.
The role of SM is mainly focused on People and interactions, within and outside of the team, it is much more closely aligned to the management hierarchy than any technical role. The role of Architect is completely focused on Things; on SW, HW, environments, processes and belongs firmly within the engineering hierarchy.
In a recent 1:1 with my manager I was actually asked how I balance both? I thought back to a good analogy I had heard years ago about the difference between male and female brains. While it was told as a joke, it left a lasting impression on the idea of being able to take out a box, work on the subject within in it and then put it back on the shelf and move onto the next. So my answer was just that I had one box for being an SM and another for being an Architect, I didn’t really give it much thought. At least not consciously, it would appear my subconscious wasn’t done with the question.
During my retrospection on the last week of planning and as I started to look outside of myself I started to think on how difficult it is to balance these two opposing worlds. One thing that stood out as a question on working in this manner is how well can we really switch between People and Things? It is one thing to be able to discuss different subjects without overlapping or letting them bleed into one another, it is fundamentally different when you have to change the way in which you talk. When we talk about Things, we can be empirical, data driven but importantly, unfeeling and critical. They’re only Things after all. When we talk to People we need a completely different skill set, there are emotions, feelings and ego’s to contend with. It’s personal!
Sometimes the separation between the two is not even clear, which can manifest itself it odd ways. One that bothers me from my technical role is when developers becomes overly attached to a piece of obsolete code, they get upset at the idea of deleting it. This makes what should be a simple detached decision to delete some dead code and turns it into a therapy session to convince them it is going to be ok, there is an afterlife, Git will retain the memory of your code. This is a discussion about a Thing, so I’m not really a fan of needing to reach into my People tool belt to finesse the conversation. At times I can run out of People tools to work on the problem, resorting instead to my Things hammer getting empirical and uncaring; “I don’t care it took 2 months to write, it takes 2 minutes for every build, which costs us time and money, all for something no one uses!” While that’s not the best response, it begs a number of questions. Do we always use the right tool for the job? If I had started by just treating it as a Thing, could it have been resolved quicker? Probably. Would that be the best way to treat people? Probably not.
This leads me to be slightly concerned about others that I work with, that also perform two roles, a lot of which have this diametric nature, such as Managers that are also Product Owner / Product Manager / Business Owner. All these other roles are business oriented, which are very Things focused; dollars, profits, results, dates. These are important to succeed as a company and in those roles they need to drive their teams towards these Things. However they then need to spend the rest of their time taking care of the People that report to them. Simon Sinek talks a lot about the differences between Managers and Leaders, from his description, unless People come first, it seems the two roles should not be inhabited by the same person. If the demands of the business keep a focus on Things, how easy can it be to switch over to People?
More importantly how easy is it for others to see the difference between the two roles? If one minute you’re a PO telling me I need to hit an unrealistic deadline, to deliver a Thing. In the next meeting you’re my Manager talking to me about my personal goals and asking is there anything bothering me? Yes! You!
It’s one thing to be able to put the Things box back on the shelf and take down the People box, it’s another to make the labels on them clearly visible. We often refer to this as wearing different hats, which would be great if we literally did it. If I could walk into a room, see the Manager hat and know the right box is out. But life is not that simple and that analogy only holds so far. Things are connected and so are People.
Out of this thought process it came down to a single question:
I am capable of doing both of these roles equally well and within business hours, but can I do both of them effectively for all those that rely on me in each role?
My answer is yes, for now, but it’s a lot of work. Most of my People work is focused into my team, while a lot of my Things work is focused externally on other teams. My team can disagree with me technically, a lot of them know more than me, so separating the two seems achievable. Though I could be wrong, only time will tell, or hopefully they might tell me.
The obvious alternative to all this is to not do two jobs. If the answer to this question is no, then maybe it is worth a discussion with your manager about stepping out of one of the roles, getting someone else to do the other. For those who are managers it’s probably a discussion with your peers about the roles everyone does, but that’s above my pay grade.
As I prefer fluidity in my job and enjoy both the technical and personal aspects of what I do, my current approach is to be more mindful about how I perform each role. Using reading and writing as a means of building up a tool set to balance between the two roles.
In the spirit of passing on a good recommendation The Practising Mind is a good one for the tool belt. A core idea is around being present in what you are doing now, not thinking about what you have to do next. It’s not easy, but by trying to stay focused in each meeting I aim to keep my boxes separate. I am currently reading 12 Rules for Life, which brings up shared themes as The Practising Mind, that we are not perfect beings, we need to continually improve ourselves and always be conscious while doing it. One that I need to re-read to keep my Things hammer in it’s holster is Crucial Conversations, useful insights into having meaningful conversations.
Armed with these tools I will hopefully get better at handling my different boxes, ensuring that the shelf is kept neat and ordered. If not I suppose I’ll need to make Sophie’s choice and pick one over the other.