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Let Go Of The Details July 8, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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IT leaders tend to manage a detail-oriented bunch of people.  Technology only works because someone pays attention to the details, and those who ignore the details are not long for our business.  We actively seek those who can absorb and deal with vast detail on a regular basis.

As qualified individuals rise through the ranks of IT, they face a troublesome trend: more and more of their job involves letting go of the details.  This can be a terrifying proposition for many of us.  If letting go of the details has been a proven recipe for disaster in the past, how can letting go of the details be crucial to my success going forward?

Leadership involves owning responsibility for more stuff than any one person can handle.  To manage all that stuff, we build teams that can collectively address the problems at hand.  Within that team, we divide and conquer, assigning different details to different people to get the job done.  Once assigned, we need to let go of those details and trust our team to handle it.

This is agonizing, especially for new managers.  I can remember when I made the transition from being a Unix systems administrator to managing the team of Unix admins.  As I relinquished my direct responsibility for our storage systems to another admin, I could feel my fingers shaking as they were pried off the keyboard of the console.  I was like a mother advising her newly-minted teenage driver as they took the car keys for the first time, blurting out bits of advice in an effort to forestall what I was sure would be an unmitigated disaster.

It wasn’t a disaster, of course, and that team of admins did a great job managing the servers that were once mine.  But the desire to stay engaged at every level, to track every detail, was overwhelming and almost fatal.  It took a lot of effort and focus to let my team do their jobs.

Failing to let go creates disaster in several directions.  At the very least, it tells your team that you do not trust them, and that you must stay engaged in order for them to do a good job.  Your lack of faith in their abilities will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating a team that lives up to your expectation of inadequacy.

Your constant meddling will also drive your team crazy.  What you see as helpful interaction is really micromanaging, and nothing is more frustrating to a competent employee than a micromanager.  You’ll lose your team’s respect and with it, any ability to actually manage them when it really matters.

Finally, all the time you’ll spend doing their job will keep you from doing yours.  Your boss is not expecting you to continue in your old role; he or she expects you to take on new responsibilities and deal with issues at a more abstract level.  Given that time is finite, every moment you spend mired in detail is a moment you could have been dedicating to your new job duties.  This incremental neglect of your new role will ultimately destroy your career.  If you really want to deal with all that detail, your boss will be happy to return you to a position that provides that opportunity.

Let go of the details.  Let your team do their job, so you can get on with doing yours.