20 ways I try to work — a maternity handover

Ordinarily, I work as Delivery Director at Delib, but about five months ago I started maternity leave. This ‘ways I try to work’ document was where I started when trying to plan my handover and it ended up being part of a set of documents and chats we had to try and do it well.

When people ask me what my job is I generally say something about working for a software company and making sure we deliver for customers. It’s hard to describe a job that is mostly reactive to the needs of my colleagues, customers, and the business, and so changes day by day and hour by hour. It was even harder to try and parcel it into a list of tasks to usefully hand over. And that’s what most people want with a handover really— who doesn’t like a checklist to work through so you can tell when you’re done? We had a list of tasks as part of my handover, too, but I wanted to make something to help my colleagues with the more nebulous stuff I do each day, so that’s what this is. Whether this was actually useful or not, I don’t know — but I did end up with something that helped me to get my head straight about some of the ways I try and work at a time when I was feeling insecure about this new future. Do I have any value? What is it? Will I still be relevant and useful when I get back? What do I even do? I don’t know, but there might be some other people starting a period of extended leave who are facing the same concerns and confusion.

I think there’s another set of thoughts about the process of handing over your job. It is obviously about giving the most useful handover to the people taking it on, but there’s a big internal process to work on, too; you’re letting go of your current life and something you put your all into and giving that over to other people. I know I didn't find it easy.

Doing a bad handover be like..

I don’t expect to come back to the same Delib that I left, but I hope that by writing this down, some of the cultural things I’ve worked on will still be there when I return.

I’ve not removed the Delib-specific stuff, but I have taken out some personal notes and added in explanations/titles next to the names of the tools we use and people in the team.

Here it is:

Not so much tasks to hand over as a set of stuff to think about and be aware of. I don’t get all of this right all the time, nor am I saying that you don’t do most of this yourselves already, and much better than I do. I’ve just tried to create something which could maybe be called ‘how I try to work’…or something?

What is actually needed while I’m away is a general vigilance over protecting how we work and our colleagues — from things that suck in too much time, or confusion, or unhelpful cultural shifts.

For all of this the overall responsibility is to try to foresee things coming up and any potential blockers. “Is this the best way to do this?” is a good question to ask. As well as “what would provide the best service?”. Sometimes the best answer is not what my initial gut reaction says and I need to think more about something. I try to question my gut before leaping in. You also need to not be afraid to admit if you/your judgement has been wrong.

Here are the 20 ways I try to work (in no particular order):

1. Make sure processes don’t get bloated, but they must still be rigorous:
This might be by taking on being Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) for something like launch and close down lists and ensuring they don’t get too heavy. It could be getting yourself involved when people are suggesting how we go about doing a thing. You need to be on the lookout for waste and bloat and things being made needlessly complicated or inefficient. Tasks need to be done accurately and thoroughly for customers and colleagues — that is a must — but it is a waste of everyone’s time and worse for our customers if they are extremely admin heavy. Think of ways to lift a burden longer term and try to get rid of overly complex things where you can.

2. Always look to build in repeatable processes (fix the plumbing):
If only I know how to do a thing, then I am the blocker. See: The Knowledge-Creating Company.

3. Be vigilant to confusion, be prepared to clear things up for people.
This needs you to know things yourself and be sure about them, but also sometimes to set out the way we do things for others. You will need to look things up and know where to find information. You will need to form opinions with a strong rationale to back up them up so that you can explain them clearly. The information you use in making these judgement calls and helping people to avoid confusion must be accurate. If it isn’t — you need to find that out first before making things more confusing. I don’t always get this right, but I try hard and it takes up a surprising amount of time replying to private messages and emails that you may not see. You may have seen it happen in IRC or in person every so often. I get asked a lot of questions throughout every day.

4. Related to the above — Reduce Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD)
For our customers and our colleagues

5. Make sure people are seen, heard and recognised
Say hello, listen out for people being frustrated, try to know their strengths, compliment them. Sometimes it’s better to do this privately and not publicly. Provide support and motivation as it may be lacking when someone most needs a boost to do their best. New colleagues might be totally competent and great, but don’t forget that they may still sometimes need context for the ways we do stuff. Explain the history of how decisions came about (where appropriate). I worry about being a stuck record, but I worry more about someone wasting their time on something we’ve already worried about before.

6. Make sure our customers and colleagues in other time zones and territories are accounted for and heard in the UK:
Don’t let people forget. If we write something, make sure it is globally relevant (if it’s not deliberately territory-specific). Remind people we are one company. Ask the question “how might this affect our customers elsewhere?” and so on.

7. Remember that nobody knows everything and (related to 3 and 4) be prepared to step in and make things clear
Sometimes, unwittingly, people will make things more confusing — try not to be that person too, and try to swoop in if you see someone heading down the wrong path or leading someone else there.

8. You will need to exercise judgement
If you think a certain way is the best way, or indeed something is the wrong way, then you need to pipe up and say so. Your instincts may be correct. And even if they are not in every case, it’s good for other people to hear that kind of question being openly asked. If you think of a plan to improve something — explain your plan to Andy (Delib MD), then do it.

9. Advocate for your colleagues (related to 5)
Whoever they are. Make sure they are included and seen, that their work is recognised. Especially new colleagues and remote colleagues. Tell other people about their good work, share it upwards and sideways. Do it altruistically.

10. Be the culture you want to have
Sometimes this means going against how you feel personally about something in order to have an outcome which will work better for the wider group. Sometimes it means eating your own ego a bit to do that. Sometimes you won’t feel like being your best self at all and it takes a lot of effort to try and drag your best self into work. I don’t manage this all the time, but I do work hard to. Think about people’s lives outside of work. Take pride and care in supporting new starters and making them feel included. Trust and respect people. We want to keep good people. You are good people.

11. Keep an eye on business continuity and resilience
Nobody wants to be That Guy — stopping anyone from taking a holiday when they want it, piping up about whether we can do a thing or not, keeping tabs on whether we’re heading for a crunch. However, you will have to mentally be that person. Please keep an eye on time in lieu and holidays and training days and upcoming new customers etc. It’s deeply un-fun admin, but this is all about protecting people as well as protecting our ability to deliver for customers.

12. Admin for admin’s sake is a definite no
Say no to busy work (relates to 1) and be vigilant about your own tendency towards it. Some people’s mindset tends more naturally toward writing lots of articles or making lots of very detailed processes and checklists. Trust in people’s intelligence, we don’t need everything spelled out in articles or process lists. You might need to step in and ask if we really need a new process or document or whatever — and you might need to ask that of yourself too. I do regular personal check-ins to try and make sure I’m not making things more complicated than they need to be. Often I’ll get a little tingle that something could be more efficient or that I’ve gone about it in a less than streamlined way. I generally try to listen to the tingle and give what I’m doing a bit more thought. It pains me when I get this wrong. I hate waste.

13. Do everything you can to break down siloed working.
Delib’s functions work well as their component parts, but the company is only as good as the way those parts work together. This relates to 10 — there is a lot around culture and challenging any us and them language or vibes that crop up. Sometimes you need to do this publicly. Sometimes you need to have a quiet word with someone. Often you have to exhibit it in your own behaviour (this is my preferred way of doing it, but I have to do the other two fairly often as well).

14. You will need to be prepared to stick your oar in
I don’t necessarily like doing this because it feels like it sails close to micromanaging or that people might not feel they are trusted by me if I’m sticking my beak in to check their understanding, but it’s absolutely vital if you want to do 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13 effectively. This one’s a real balancing act. I don’t always get it right, but the ultimate aim is to help someone or to improve things as quickly as possible. Expect to get it wrong sometimes. The worst that can happen is someone does already know something and gets a bit eggy with you for asking, but you can normally clear that up by making a joke about it and apologising for being a nosey parker. As long as you genuinely trust people and your other actions show that, the odd stickybeak should be taken as it’s meant. This is a psychological safety thing — you accept a stickybeak from people you trust and who you know trust you.

15. Culture again — you might need to remind people (and yourself) that in most cases nobody is setting out to get in anyone else’s way or cause them more stress than is needed.
This is sometimes surprisingly hard (especially if you yourself are smarting because of something that happened), but it’s vital to be a calm and rational voice and to remember that everyone was doing the best they could with the information they had at the time. We’re all only human and not able to fully understand each other’s lived experience, only our own — reminding other people of those things can help diffuse a situation. It’s ok to kindly acknowledge something was suboptimal too — don’t be a corporate stooge. The important thing is what we do next and how we plan to avoid it happening again rather than griping. Everyone needs a chance to grumble, but it needs to not go on for ages, ultimately you have to turn it around, be practical and work past it.

16. I’ll call this one — Do we need a policy?
It relates to 1, 2, 3, 4 and 12. Mostly the answer is ‘no — we do not need more bureaucracy’. BUT — and this is where judgement comes in — sometimes it’s yes if it will save time in the long run and we need a clear set of guidance and rules for people to follow without which we might make an error which is embarrassing/damaging in public or wastes time or money. I can make policies myself, but I will always ask Andy to check that I’m barking up the right tree. Policy must ABSOLUTELY be well researched, clear and accurate, otherwise it’s totally pointless. While I’m away you may need to write policy and to know if it’s emerging policy or not.

17. Shit, everything is on fire
Be calm. Follow our guides. Make sure other people follow them as well. Encourage lots of communication. Be that communicator. Remember to be kind. If your patience slips (mine does and has), bring it back and do a nice thing for everyone else who’s under lots of stress — tea, food, reassurance. Keep the customers in mind at all times. Be clear about what you need to know from people to be able to help. Delegate tasks, especially comms tasks to share the load (I am rubbish at this bit — don’t be like me).

18. If it’s everyone’s responsibility, it’s nobody’s responsibility
I’m bad at this. If it isn’t on my to-do list or I think someone else is doing it, then it will fly out of my mind like a bat and not come back. I suspect that’s true for everyone and it’s how things get missed. So, to counter that, if I am aware that there is an important task that needs doing or a thing that we need to be aware of, I will try to make sure that I or another named person has it on their radar. Sometimes I am not aware of a task so — related — make sure things are put in tickets if they need doing. It makes them visible.

19. Don’t just do things for people
Similar to 2. So tempting this one, you know how to do it, you know you can do it quickly, but that knowledge goes nowhere if you just do the thing every time and don’t let other people try things their way or find out for themselves. This goes right down to where to find things. Point people in the right direction to find what they need, but no need to spoon-feed. I mean, obviously don’t watch anyone struggling! But give guidance and help without taking over. I’m sometimes (maybe often) bad at this and sometimes ok.

20. Repeat the message
You will need to repeat things at scale. In different ways. More times than you think. Never presume that just because you passed a thing on that the thing is passed on. You may find that you need to repeat important information for different people and at different times. Everyone absorbs things in their own way, and even the same person might not hear a thing in the same way if they are hungry/distracted/whatever. You will also probably need to join the dots for people across the company and link people to one another rather than being a go-between yourself.

It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just a thing because we’re all human. Anyway, the moral is, don’t presume that because it’s communicated, it’s communicated.

Bonus 21: You cannot know everything. You cannot solve everything
Even if you feel like you should be able to or (worse) you feel like other people secretly think you should have been able to. It’s simply not possible to be everywhere, Shocking I know! But I have found this the hardest thing to come to terms with. It takes me quite a lot of effort to regroup if something unfortunate happens or we do things in a non-useful way and I feel partly (or fully) responsible. You can only do what you can with the time you have. Look after yourselves if you are looking after other people, own mask on first and all that aeroplane-based metaphor stuff.

I’ll be back at work in July 2021, hopefully to a different and evolved company where more people have had a chance to grow their roles, because that’s how it should be. I’m not going to be back to exactly the same set of responsibilities as before, and that’s good too, but I hope when I get back I’ll still be a useful part of the team.

Delivery Director at Delib. Doing democracy (and alliteration, apparently). Also a human. Posts are my own: weeknotes, running, other stuff.

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