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Important engineering leadership decisions are rarely simple. Here are some strategies for navigating complex situations.

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As engineering leaders, we’re expected to be force multipliers, growing the people around us to deliver maximum value to our organizations. But as we grow more senior and start leading more teams, things can become complex very fast – especially in large organizations.

The issues we’re solving aren’t simple JIRA tickets or bug fixes, but complex problems that span interconnected areas of business, technology, and teams. Many things overlap, and we enter zones of ambiguity. Our decisions can’t be made on data alone, and we need to use our social influence, good judgment, and trust in others to make choices that are beneficial in the long run.

If you’re a leader in an organization of a certain size, you’re probably familiar with this kind of complexity and ambiguity. This type of conflict can be stressful, and it’s one of the major reasons employees perceive organizations to be highly political.

Here are four scenarios where we might face complexity and ambiguity in our work, and how we can use social influence and trust to navigate these situations.

Scenario 1: Navigating different viewpoints

Sam is the on-call engineer for a large and complex microservice, which is widely used and has a lot of inherent complexity. He has an excellent track record of identifying golden signals and setting the right alarms. He shows high amounts of ownership by regularly hopping onto calls early in the morning to extinguish wildfires.

How should Sam be evaluated at his performance meeting?

Some managers believe Sam is an incredible employee and an unsung hero in a challenging space, doing everything he can to keep the team's head above water. However, others view the situation as never improving, and think that the team hasn't been able to go above and beyond their operational problems at hand. They believe that root causes haven’t been properly addressed.

Which view is correct? Well, both.

Sam has been working really hard, but at the same time, he hasn’t been creating long-term impact, or considering how his work will be perceived by others. Either way, there’s some opportunity for feedback and coaching.

It’s not possible to make a decision here based on data and merit alone. Like most important trajectory-changing decisions, the situation is complex. Sam’s manager needs to consider the individual, while ultimately focusing on their impact to the wider organization.

When it comes to the performance review, Sam’s manager acknowledges his hard work and good intention, and coaches him on the importance of delivering long-term impact. In the following months, they help Sam to identify and resolve the root causes of the wildfires, and the number of incidents goes down.

Scenario 2: Balancing different priorities

Ami is an experienced senior staff engineer who has been hired by a fairly new organization to help grow the engineering teams and scope who will be doing what work. Most of the folks on the teams are new hires.

Ami goes about writing and documenting the design for the engineering org, and details the different tasks and levels. She works with multiple other leaders to understand the complex dependencies on and between different teams. However, each dependent team has a different priority.

What can Ami do? This is a complex scenario that plays out fairly regularly in new and growing organizations. These types of decisions can’t be made with data alone, and there’s no one right answer.

She sifts carefully through each task, assigns them a priority, and makes a judgment call on who should work on what, based on her conversations with other leaders, and the few data points available about the engineers.

Because Ami has taken the time to build rapport with her peers, and because she has previously built credibility with the folks who hired her, they trust her and support her decision. This is why social networks are so important when navigating complex scenarios.

Scenario 3: Change management

Dave is a senior leader in the developer experience team. He proposes a change to the existing code check-in processes. He feels there needs to be a guardrail that checks for security issues in the commit and blocks it from merging if necessary.

However, he’s met with resistance because the teams who own large legacy codebases would then need to go through a security check for the entire codebase and define an acceptable baseline, significantly increasing their cycle time.

What can Dave do? He doesn’t want to create extra work for these teams, but making the change is what will deliver the highest long-term value to the organization as a whole.

Dave approaches Leena, a senior leader in the development organization who has a high level of authority and influence. They’ve worked together previously and Leena knows Dave to be competent. She reviews his articulated proposition and, after a few pivots and discussions with his team, enforces the plan in a probational and incremental manner.

In this case, Dave was able to use his social influence to implement a pivotal change that will deliver the maximum impact to the larger organization.

Scenario 4: Measuring efficiency

Gina is a senior manager who wants to measure the efficiency of her team. She goes to the team, who are building a new service that will drive a critical feature on their product. While asking for estimates, she discovers that some members are struggling to predict the timelines for their work. They tell her they still need to do many things, including writing a proof of concept to rule out any risks, carrying out experimentation, identifying metrics, and inventing a few new components. 

What should Gina do? Should she increase or decrease the size of the team?

If a team is working on measurable work, they are working on things that have already been done, and they can measure exactly that. But timelines are really hard to guess when a team is creating something new. In this case, the leader has to trust the team, and believe that they are highly driven and motivated by the value they are going to create.

Gina leaves the team the same size, and gives them the space and time they need to be successful. She frequently audits the metrics as the team ships and delivers incrementally, and works hard to build a chain of trust between her, the team, and her own manager.

Reflections

As senior leaders, our decisions are rarely simple. We can’t rely on data alone; we also have to rely on people. We need to cultivate strong relationships with people that we trust and respect. Over time, these social networks will allow us to grow our influence, and deliver impact with more ease.