Chapter 3: A Problem-Solving Style

(This is part 3 in a series of posts where I document my progress through reading Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach by Gerald Weinberg, answering the questions at the end of each chapter)

1.  Observe someone you consider a leader.

“Make a list of this person’s activities when working with others, and see how many of them fit into the categories of understanding the problem, managing the flow of ideas, and controlling the quality. Are there activities on this list that you never do? Why not?”

For this, I’m going with a project manager I used to work for. His way of working was first to get a cursory understanding of the problem. Sometimes he’d go deeper, sometimes he’d decide it was something he didn’t need to understand it thoroughly, so he’d just dish it out to the team. At that point, he would “fan the flames” for every spark of an idea anyone had, and if there was nothing, he’d try seeding the discussion with an idea of his own – sometimes a sane one, sometimes a clearly ridiculous one. Anything to keep the floodgates open. He also had a knack for figuring out ways to test our solutions. A little bit of something for every category, then.

I’d say that while I’m fairly apt at understanding problems and testing the quality of solutions, I’m not very good at encouraging ideas. In fact, I tend to either quietly think to myself or dominate the whole discussion, being more of a participant than a moderator.

2. Observe someone you don’t consider much of a leader.

“Make a list of some simple opportunities for exercising leadership that this person misses. Do you miss these same opportunities? Why?”

I know one person whose role in the team officially sets him up as a leader. Yet he would much rather delegate the day-to-day leadership to someone who is officially in a position of less responsibility. I do think I miss some opportunities just like he does – sometimes even on purpose, if I’m not feeling up to it.

Back when I was officially a “senior software engineer”, my mistakes were of a different sort. I put myself up on a pedestal, but then didn’t actually live up to that image, and didn’t really lead at all.

3. Do you ever have trouble getting people to pay attention to your ideas?

“How do you react to their ideas?”

Sometimes I see people so stuck in their particular train of thought, that they won’t actually consider any idea that doesn’t fit their mental model of the problem. It’s tolerable for a while, but if repeats often enough, I tend to flip the bozo bit on them. After that, I typically dismiss their ideas without thinking them over – not consciously, though. Sometimes I manage to catch myself in time and actually consider what they’re saying, after which I assess the idea on its own merits.

4. What techniques do you use for gaining perspective on what you are doing when you are working in a group?

“when you are working alone? How might you improve your ability to see your own actions?”

Usually, if my approach doesn’t work and I get frustrated, I launch into meta-mode, circling around the problem and my mental model of it. If I’m actively working with a group at the moment, I’m likely to fall quiet and zone out. When I’m already alone, I don’t need that extra distance. Sometimes I use instrumental music to focus. I tend to reflect on my own actions a lot afterwards, but if I’m in a particularly emotional state, I can’t view my own actions very subjectively even in meta-mode. I need to learn how to keep my cool.

5. Next time you work with a group, list all the things you do to exercise leadership.

“If you don’t have at least ten items, do the assignment again, and keep doing it until you get a list of ten things out of one activity. When you have your list, put the items into categories of understanding the problem, managing the flow of ideas, and controlling the quality. Does your style tend to favor one category over the others? Which of your actions don’t fit into any of these categories?”

This one is hard to answer now, because I’m about to leave my current team, and most everyone else is on vacation. I’ll have to come back to this one later.

6. Overall, what new actions would you need to practice to strengthen your style as a problem-solving leader?

I need to set my own need for approval aside, and instead of obsessing over being the one who solves the problem, learn to be the catalyst for it.


Previously: Chapter 2: Models of Leadership Style Next up: Chapter 4: How Leaders Develop

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