Manage the What, Not the How
When I first became a manager, I had a tendency to micromanage my employees’ process — “how” they did things instead of “what” they produced.
This is a really common pattern I see in a lot of leaders who have never managed people before (I’m looking at you, founders), especially those who are detail-oriented, high performing, and opinionated about what quality looks like (which typically is what made them successful in the first place).
Controlling how work gets done only makes your company slower. Employees will inevitably do things that make you cringe, take different approaches than you, and sometimes even truly mess up. But it’s rare that the best answer is to try to control their process.
What you learn with experience is that in addition to all those negative moments you will sometimes see people do things better and faster and more creatively than you ever could if you learn to let go and focus on the “what”. If you spend your time controlling the “how”, you miss all the best parts of building a team and all the true power that comes from enabling people to find the solution that they think is best.
It’s tempting to manage how employees work. But in 90% of cases, what really matters is: Did you hit the goal?
To run a successful company, particularly one past a certain size, controlling the “how” is simply not an option. You have to learn to be extraordinary at aliging around the “what” and at coaching people as they go.
To let go of the “how,” get really good at defining the “what”
The highest performing team I've ever worked with was the Quip team. Our engineering team was incredibly fast at shipping improvements and features in the product. They were more productive than most teams 10x their size. It was unlike anything I had seen before or since. Neither of the cofounders managed the hours that people were working or where they worked; they didn’t manage how the work got done. Their management was all about alignment (do people understand what’s important, what we’re building, and why) and clear expectations (“we need to ship this feature by this date”).
The key to exceptional management is to get great at defining the “what”. As a leader, you need to know how to create alignment, how to clarify what you expect, and how to communicate all of it.
Fred Kofman, author of Conscious Business, has a model for what he calls “clear commitments.” It is my favorite framework for delegating that I’ve ever been trained on. Delegating well requires stating a goal, clarifying expectations about what “good” looks like in areas you care about (e.g., cost, quality, timeline), getting a commitment from the employee, checking in, and holding the employee accountable.
New managers are often afraid that if they set a goal, someone will ignore something important in the process of accomplishing it (ignore quality, ignore cost, etc). That has to be part of defining the “what,” which Fred’s model does a great job of clarifying. You don’t have a commitment if both parties don’t agree to the definition of what good or “done” looks like.
One thing I often do as a manager is define the “what” as best as I can upfront, but I also set a check-in point so I can make sure that we’re still aligned. Setting a timeline for a check-in might sound like, “I want us to ship this feature in 2 months. Here are the things I care about. Can you scope what you think needs to be done and come back to me in 2 weeks so we can talk through your approach?” This clarifies that the employee owns the project and you can course-correct if needed.
That check in is very different from checking their code every day, asking to see call transcripts, or demanding a detailed weekly list of everything they accomplished. AND it FEELS very different to the person who owns the project. They feel supported and aligned, not mistrusted.
Guardrails for your “what” might sound like:
Marketing manager: Let’s figure out how to get an additional 100k leads without spending more than $X budget in Y timeframe.
Product manager: Ship XX product by December solving Y problem, make sure it’s instrumented so the data team can track it, and it needs to integrate in X way with other parts of the tech stack.
Junior CS: Close this many tickets each month, within a 4-day SLA and a XX customer satisfaction score.
Junior coder: Deliver this code within this timeframe, and your code reviewers shouldn’t need to spend more than X time giving you feedback.
You can also state what’s important to you in broad strokes so your employees can watch out for it. I’ll often say, “Let’s deliver this project by this date, and here are two things I want you to keep an eye on. First, I want to manage the cost of XYZ. Second, I’m worried that we’re going to hurt this other product line or initiative, so let’s think about how to prevent that.”
The more senior your employees are, the more fuzzy your “what’s” can and should be. Part of being senior is the ability to bring granularity to broad goals, to have judgment about what “good” looks like, and to know when to ask for more clarity. For you as a leader, it’s about ensuring that you have alignment with them instead of demanding that they do it your way.
When things go wrong
What if your team isn’t hitting goals? What if you have an anxiety attack because an employee did something wrong?
It’s tempting to crack down on the “how” — to do it yourself or to send those rage emails or Slacks.
But you have a few other options:
Let things play out
Coach on the “how”
Realign on the “what”
Coach preventatively so it doesn’t happen in the first place
Let’s go through them…
Let things play out
Part of learning how to delegate is learning not to overreact when the “how” doesn’t look exactly the way you’d do it or when the “what” gets off track.
Let’s say your direct report sends the CEO a very badly worded email or flubs a presentation. It’s easy to feel flustered and frustrated as a manager. But it’s a good idea to take some time and figure out how important that thing is. Yes, maybe it’s not ideal, but it could be a great learning moment for them. Sometimes allowing people to grow means that they need to hear the feedback from other people, not you.
You can’t prevent all mistakes and these moments can be really important learning moments for someone (I think you can probably remember those times in your career…) Experienced managers will give people time to see the consequences of their approach and chat through possible other approaches.
When you let things play out, sometimes you also learn that their way worked just fine even though it isn’t how you would have done it. So the learning can go both ways…
2. Coach on the “how”
When you intervene, you intervene with coaching.
You can say, “That email you sent seemed abrupt,” or “You missed these two points that were important.” You can share examples to learn from.
You’re giving feedback and then letting them try it again, not jumping in to micromanage.
3. Realign on the “what”
Problems are sometimes caused by misalignment on the “what.” In that case, your intervention should reset expectations about the goal.
Let’s say a product was built, but it’s not instrumented for the data team to track and it doesn’t integrate with anything else in the tech stack. Resetting expectations is saying, “You and I need to realign on what a good product looks like now that our company is bigger.”
Sometimes, the feedback is about their judgment: “Hey, I would have expected someone of your seniority to notice that I didn’t delegate these aspects perfectly and ask me about them.”
4. Coach preventatively
It’s natural to want to protect your employees. Particularly for more junior or newer employees, it can be a great idea to coach preventatively. Continuing with our email example, you could say, “Hey, our CEO is kind of particular about how he handles email or presentations. The first 1–2 times you send an email to the CEO, share it with me first and I’ll help you get used to his style. I want to help you avoid common mistakes people run into. As soon as you’re feeling good, you can stop running stuff by me and only CC me if it’s relevant to me.”
That isn’t micromanagement, even though it is focused on the “how.” It is coaching and clearly trying to set your employees up for success.
At the end of the day, management has a lot in common with raising kids. Your goal is to raise high functioning adults who can think for themselves and eventually navigate the world on their own. As a parent, do you stop all mistakes before they happen? Is that what your parents did? No. You have to let kids take risks and learn when things don’t work out. You don’t let them make life-threatening mistakes, but as they get older, you give them bigger and bigger things to do independently, and you might coach them through their process.
The same is true for employees. You expect them to occasionally faceplant, and when they do, you dust off the dirt and give them pointers for next time.
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