This post is the second in a series devoted to four engineering management roles that can boost an engineering team’s velocity and impact. The other roles include The Critic, The Cloner, and The Futurist. These roles are also related to the six engineering roles laid out in an earlier post: 6 Unique Engineering Roles Designed to Boost Development Velocity, but are focused on management roles instead of engineering roles.
In the first post in this series of engineering management roles, I introduced you to the Critic. In this installment, let’s meet the Nowist.
As you learn about each of four management roles, hopefully you’ll see things that you can learn from and emulate. Think about how strong or weak you are at each particular role, for example, and who you know best embodies it.
Role #2: The Nowist
The Nowist is all about moving everything closer to the present. To a Nowist, every action makes things faster or it makes them slower. And Nowists always want to go faster.
Any time someone proposes something in the future, the Nowist starts thinking:
- “Can we eliminate the wait?”
- “Can we just go talk with him now?”
- “Do we need a meeting, maybe we can decide right now?”
To a Nowist, the goal is to phrase everything in a way that makes a decision instead of blocking a decision or requiring a meeting.
Nowists seem like judo masters in meetings, because they push things forward towards action. One way a Nowist helps speed things up is by making sure every time something is discussed, no one leaves without a default course of action. This may sometimes be a bad course of action, but at least there’s always a default option. For example, if a team isn’t sure what it wants to name a new car, a Nowist might say, “If you all come up with something you like better before Wednesday, then we’ll go with that. Otherwise, we’ll call it the Slugmobile and see how that feels.”
Continual course corrections
Nowists are willing to change direction quickly and frequently, and they don’t ever feel like they’re 100% right or wrong—they’re constantly adjusting so they don’t feel attached to a particular direction. Nowists believe that management is like driving—you continually monitor the situation and make lots of small corrections. The more frequent the adjustments, the smoother the trip.
To a Nowist, any decision is better than no decision. Even if it is wrong, at least you’re on your way to finding out that it’s wrong. Nowists are willing to course correct and redo work, but they’re constantly learning while they’re progressing down a path, always reevaluating whether they made the right decision.
To a Nowist, there is only “now” and “not now.” Instead of getting paralyzed by huge decisions, they strategically break down big decisions into small decisions designed to move towards understanding. In some ways, a Nowist cares only about keeping things moving in the right direction, not which of the major choices the team will make.
The Nowist has one huge fear, and that is losing momentum. They’re terrified of things coming to a halt. Putting something aside for a few days to work on something else is unthinkable to them. To make forward progress, you have to keep things moving at all times.
From the Nowist’s perspective, every action either makes things move faster or slows them down. Often, when engineers or managers surface an objection or concern, they do so in a way that brings everything to a halt. But Nowists know that there are ways to talk about these issues that keep the discussion moving forward.
Tell, don’t ask
One way the Nowist maintains velocity is by following a simple motto: “Tell, don’t ask.” Nowists seek guidance instead of approval, and scope their decision-making to their level of authority in any given situation.
Sure, some decisions require explicit approval. Nowists know what those situations are, and they make it clear when they need the decision. More often, though, Nowists express their desired course of action but invite intervention. A Nowist will say, “Here are the options. I’m going to proceed with X, but if you have any concerns or feedback, please let me know.” That lets them get started right away instead of waiting on a decision with a lot of parties involved.
Aspiring Nowists may initially find it difficult to get the team to go along with something a little different than what they’re used to. One way to lower the anxiety level is to say, “Let’s try it for a week and see how it feels.” Another way to do this is to break up the big scary change into a lot of smaller, less scary changes.
Nowist to-do lists
To a Nowist, there is a simple algorithm for deciding what to work on:
- Is it important? They start by asking if it is important. If it’s not important to them, they immediately stop thinking about it. If they know it’s important to someone else, they’ll ask them to take care of it.
- Is it urgent? If it’s urgent, then they work on it right away. If it’s not urgent, then they decide then and there WHEN they’ll work on it.
Cut through to what is important
One thing I learned from a Nowist is to have a simple phrase to decide if something is important or not. I like to ask, “Is this helping us build an amazing product?” In fact, I’ve narrowed it down to just two words: “Amazing product?” This is tremendously freeing, helping you see what work is extracurricular and what is core.
Nowists tend to cut through a lot of unimportant stuff by finding the phrase that simplifies things down to their essence. For me, when I had that litmus test for everything on my plate, I then had a simple algorithm to decide what was important and what wasn’t.
Another trick I’ve stolen from Nowists is tracking commits. A Nowist doesn’t want to get stuck—they don’t want to let things slide a minute longer than necessary. So I track what people promise me by keeping it at the top of my to-do list and review it every morning.
When Nowists get ahead of themselves
Nowists are great at getting results. They are excellent at execution and making sure nothing stands in their way. But Nowists should be careful to make sure they don’t focus just on execution. They need to keep an eye of the future as well (so they should often practice the Futurist role—more on that in an upcoming post.)
Nowists also have to be careful to not take on all the decision-making for the group. They can often benefit by giving their team real responsibilities. (That’s where the Cloner role comes in—more on that in an upcoming post as well.)
That’s what’s involved in being the action-focused, present-focused Nowist. They make things happen. Click here to learn about the Critic, and stay tuned for a look at the other engineering management roles: the Cloner and the Futurist.