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Stretching your team

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As a manager, stretching your team is one of the best ways to improve your output, your team’s happiness, and your velocity. Setting a "Big Hairy Audacious Goal" gives your team something to strive for, and even if they don’t reach it, research shows that people that shoot for the moon and miss go farther than people who set easily attainable goals and reach them.

Psychologist Edwin Locke’s Goal Setting Theory research found that regardless of discipline, harder goals resulted in higher performance. He also discovered that people with extremely hard goals "consistently performed at a higher level" than people with very easy goals, even though the harder goals were less often reached.

As anyone who has been bored by an easy job already knows, he also found that people with challenging goals had more interest in completing their tasks and reported getting more enjoyment from doing their work.

I like to stretch people and their abilities. I’ll often give someone things to do that might be a little outside their comfort zone, with a goal of helping them grow into something new. This can be new to a lot of people, so early on, it helps to build their confidence by assuring them that you’ll give them things that you’re confident they can achieve. I also like to build the stretch goal muscles with tasks that are not super critical. This gives people room to fail and learn without undue stress and hardship on the rest of the team.

As a manager, you can’t leave the employee alone on these stretch assignments. You must commit to coaching them, and they must ask for help if they need it or get stuck. Don’t let them spend days banging their heads against a wall when asking for guidance or help getting a roadblock removed can unstick them.

This can be an unnatural skill for many people, and you might have to help them learn it. Asking for help simply doesn’t come naturally or easy to some people. Ensure that you’re open and available to give help, and that you actually give it. It’s not enough to say you have an open door policy if you’re always too busy or distracted to give detailed guidance when it’s needed.

It’s crazy-important that you recognize the skill level of someone when handing them stretch goals. Don’t be so afraid of being a micromanager that you’re afraid to actually manage. Legendary Intel CEO Andy Grove used to say that the most important job he had as a manager was to be a teacher. He realized that the amount of management and guidance someone needs changes as their skills change, and that this isn’t a matter of "senior people need less guidance."

Does it matter that you’ve been developing for 25 years and managing teams of developers for 5 years if you’re asked to start going on sales calls? Do your management and engineering skills magically make you a good salesperson?

What Grove understood, but most managers fail to grasp, is not just that the skill level of a person is relative to the task at hand, but that the amount of coaching a person requires is also relative to their skill level at a task.

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