Have you ever worked on a team that felt like it was just stuck in a rut? Somehow things were always just one fix away from improving: the next project, the next quarter, the next hire, this would turn the situation around. And yet these projects came, the quarters went by, new people were hired and joined and left and nothing ever really improved. It’s a sadly common situation, and one of the few that I believe can be laid squarely at the feet of the team’s manager.

Birmingham Museums Trust — Richard Trevithick’s 1802 steam locomotive with flywheel

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about how you know whether a manager is great. When everything is going well, all a decent manager has to do is not screw things up, and it’s not always easy to tell on paper whether a manager is merely good or truly excellent. A person might have thorough training, they might have a large team, they might even have smart things to say on Twitter, but are they actually great at the job? None of these things will tell you the answer.

But ask a manager about how they’ve gotten a team out of a rut, and now you start to hear about a real, common situation that a manager can make or break. There are some managers out there who just know how to take a team that is in a rut and turn them around. They may have different ways to describe their approach, but the outcome is the same: they start to turn the management flywheel.

“The Flywheel” is a popular startup analogy, and is best described in this classic writeup. The flywheel is heavy and painful to start, and starts off slow, but as it gathers momentum over time it goes faster and faster. Turning around a team feels like getting this flywheel spinning. Most managers who see a team in a rut can quickly detect many things that are going wrong. But it’s the response to these problems that distinguishes the great ones.

Some managers in this situation will proclaim that they are going to make big changes. Technical managers often see the flaws in the architecture or the legacy approaches to technology that the team is using, and immediately set about to overhaul the whole system. They want to change the language that the system is written in, or move to event-driven microservices, or rewrite the whole thing to run on Lambda so that there’s no support to worry about. Product-vision managers see that the product vision is lacking, and immediately paint a big picture for the team that articulates a beautiful world they could be providing for their customers. Talent-focused managers take one look at the people on the team and immediately decide that they are just the wrong people, and the only solution is to immediately overhaul the people and hire a bunch of “the right”** engineers to replace them.

My experience is that most of these managers, in these situations, will fail. I have personally failed in all of these ways at least once in my career. But we won’t admit we failed. The technical managers will blame the legacy system and how impossible it is to rewrite the system while supporting the terrible decisions of the previous leaders. The product-vision managers will blame the team for not figuring out how to take their grand vision and turn it into a roadmap that makes sense. The talent-focused managers will somehow never manage to get the right team in place.

The managers who succeed in this may have big ideas about the technology, the product, and the talent and culture of the team, but they don’t just start with these ideas. Instead, they identify the little things that can be changed. Questions like “how do we decide what we’re working on today” and “do we have clear responsibilities for core tasks” start to get resolved. These managers may tackle confusing on-call schedules, or onerous project management expectations. The best will look across the projects and quickly re-prioritize work to gain focus for the team.

These little things start to build up steam. Now the team feels less burdened by unwieldy processes, and starts to make decisions faster. They know who is responsible for being on call, and stop swarming on every incident. They are working on fewer projects, and slowly start actually finishing those projects instead of dragging them out indefinitely.

While this is happening, the team is getting happier, and the manager is learning more about the deeper challenges of the team. Is the product direction muddy? Is the team missing a critical set of skills that need to be hired? Does the entire architecture need to be revamped? These are critical questions to figure out and answer, but they are never the first questions that a manager over a team in a rut should be worrying about. There is inevitably a set of simple things that can be improved to get the team through this transition, to start building the flywheel that will make the big things easier. Because it’s easier to demand more of your product counterparts when the team is executing. It’s easier to hire when the team is engaged and excited to add new talent. And it’s much, much easier to fix a bad architecture when the team is able to ship changes.

When you find yourself in a rut, remember that you don’t have to solve the root cause of everything wrong with the team as a first act. Start with the little problems. Give the team some small wins, clarity, and focus. Make their job a little bit easier, and help them work a little bit faster. Build up speed on the flywheel. Once you’ve gotten the team to be productive, they will still need you to set direction, and to resolve interpersonal and inter-team conflicts. They will need vision, mission, psychological safety, and inspirational goal-setting. But big things start small, so don’t forget to sweat the small stuff.

** The right engineers range from “Engineers from the best colleges/FAANGs-only” to “only startup engineers who are hungry for an opportunity” to “only people who actually understand this industry” to “only people who appreciate my values” depending on the manager.

Thanks to Kelly Shortridge for feedback on this post.

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