Don’t be the Boy Who Cried Wolf

Photo by Qingbao Meng on Unsplash

Prioritising work is an art and a science. Whether you’re an individual contributor or a people manager, most career advice advocates for honing your prioritisation skills. As a leader, you should be prepared to prioritise not only your work (“what’s the best way I can help my team right now?”) but your team’s work as well (“what should we work on first?”). You will also have to communicate these priorities again and again during 1:1s and planning meetings.

Managers usually have the best intentions to create clarity for their teams by ranking work in terms of impact. But the reality is far from ideal.

When we don’t say no

If you ever heard this in a planning meeting, raise your hand: “Can we add this fix in the current sprint? Surely it can’t take over a few hours.”

You know perfectly well what happens next: you begrudgingly add the fix to your team’s roadmap, and because no bug ever takes “just a few hours” to solve, you end up reverting to your individual contributor role to help your team reach the deadline. Your team learns nothing from the process.

New managers often fall back on their contributor duties during stressful times. They convince themselves that raising their sleeves and getting their hands dirty is the best way to help their team. The reality is more selfish than that: they return to their comfort zone, shielding themselves from the harsh realities of their updated role. The problem is that by doing that, they underutilise their impact. It’s hard to learn to say no when you keep operating in a low-impact role.

However heroic it might seem for the “boss” to fight along their team, this kind of behaviour doesn’t benefit your team members. Instead of creating a concrete plan and clarifying goals and priorities, you teach them that their workload is up for everyone to influence. This uncertainty will add a hefty communication overhead since uncertain people tend to ask the same questions repeatedly. You’ll also find that after some cycles of this behaviour, your team might become cynical and withdrawn, losing sight of the vision because of constantly shifting priorities.

When everything is critical, nothing is

Do you remember Aesop’s fable of the boy who cried wolf? When management constantly claims everything is critical, employees will eventually become desensitised and stop trusting the management.

According to HBR, there are three main variables when executing any initiative: objectives, resources, and timing. When you fix one of these variables, you must adjust the others to ensure the initiative succeeds. That means that if you have a strict deadline for a project, you should update its scope and the resources needed accordingly. If a project with an exact set of objectives must be out by a specific date, then you should have free rein on the type and amount of resources you have at your disposal.

One would think this is straightforward enough, but many executive teams tend to gloss over this simple rule. Everyone wishes they could do everything right, cheap and on time, but it’s just not possible; something got to give. You have to pick two.

How to say no and live to tell the tale

Saying no to someone multiple levels above you in the org chart is not an easy task. To mitigate the damage and get the desired results, you should come prepared. If one (or two) of the above variables is set in stone, take the time to prepare different options for adjusting the others to accommodate that. Think deeply about tradeoffs, and don’t be afraid to bring bold ideas to the table.

Avoid falling back to your maker duties unless your role demands it. Claire Lew gave this urge to act a name in a recent Twitter thread: competency fallacy. New managers think that to appear competent, they must do the work instead of teaching, sharing context, asking questions and having hard conversations.

Moreover, be careful about the language you use when communicating priorities. Make sure you call “critical” only the essential, red-hot projects for which you can freely allocate the necessary resources. These projects should not be the norm for your team unless you want to push them to burnout.

Prioritising work is part of our daily work as managers, and a significant factor is learning to say no constructively. Instead of rushing to help your team whenever things get tough, take a few steps back and assess the situation: how can you impact the outcomes by adjusting the objectives, time and resources variables?

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