Let It Go
Despite my fondness for Disney, this column is not really an homage to Frozen and its epic musical anthem. Instead, it is a reflection on the career path for an information development manager and the necessary mindset we must have in taking on new responsibilities both personally and for the whole department.
Inevitably, any move in position requires an adjustment to a new set of responsibilities, but I have found in each small change I’ve made throughout my career the hardest adjustment to make is letting go of what I used to do. I eagerly embrace the new role and all the tasks and responsibilities it entails, but tightly cling to everything I did before. True in each step from technical writer to manager, I find it all the more apparent now, as I move to business owner.
The reasons for this tendency are not hard to understand. Typically, a driving factor in an upward career move is the stellar performance demonstrated in your previous position. You clearly know that job well and it is difficult to let someone who might not perform to your same level take over. Further, you don’t necessarily know your new job as well, so there’s a certain level of comfort in continuing to do what you did well even as you learn new things. When you stumble and make mistakes in your new job, continuing to perform the old one gives you a pleasant reminder that you don’t stink at everything you do.
As responsibilities change, so must also the measure of success and your own personal sense of fulfillment. In a new position, you don’t yet have an inherent sense of what you should be doing and what defines that you have done it well. For me, it was a feeling of a lack of accomplishment at the end of the day that drove me to retaining writer responsibilities even as I added management ones. Often as a manager, you aren’t producing anything you can easily measure. You can’t point to a set of topics and say “I wrote those today.” You can’t deliver a document plan, satisfied that you are ahead of schedule and certain that the strategies you proposed are ideal for the users that you personally interviewed. In fact, it is difficult to directly relate anything you do to a final, tangible product that makes it into the hands of your end users. You may find yourself wondering at the end of the day, what exactly did I do all day, and more importantly, did it provide any value?
Often, you may also be faced with the reality that your old position hasn’t (yet) been backfilled. There’s no one to actually do your old job and your sense of duty compels you to fill the gap. Even if there is a replacement, old habits die hard. If the transition to your new position isn’t well planned or managed, you may find yourself “helping out” without even thinking about it, and unless you are obnoxious about it, who’s going to complain about getting some extra hands to complete a job?
Nevertheless, you aren’t actually doing anyone any favors by adding to, rather than changing, your responsibilities and focus. It should be obvious that there is a limit to the number of tasks any one person can reasonably do well. Certainly, you may have the skills to do each task well, but time and energy are a different story. Trying to do it all often leads to compromises in quality or schedule. Holding on to what you used to do, decreases your ability to learn your new responsibilities promptly and is a disservice to the people who put you in that new position. Ultimately, it is also a disservice to those who will fill your old position, who learn to rely on you rather than build their own skills.
Your ability to personally let go of your old responsibilities and habits has a significant impact on your department. Obviously, a critical aspect of management is the mentoring of your team. As someone who has progressed through the ranks, you understand their challenges and can give them the tools to succeed. But if you haven’t let go, how much easier and/or faster is it to just do it for them? Or if they do something differently than you did, how tempting is it to take it over and “do it right”? Not only must you let go of the task itself, but often your specific perception of how that task should be done. By holding on, you can stunt the growth of your team members and even prevent innovation and progress.
If you have a habit of piling responsibilities on to your own plate, you may be lacking important skills in maintaining a reasonable workload for your department. As a manager, one of your important roles is to ensure the department as whole also lets go of responsibilities when new ones come your way.
As user demands continue to change, you may be faced with requests for new content and new outputs: you need to enhance your content with videos or other multimedia. You need a social media strategy that not only pushes content to users, but enables their active participation in content creation. You need to develop a corporate taxonomy and metadata strategy. You need to publish custom content dynamically. More often than not, these requests are not accompanied by additional resources. Yet, too many managers I know willingly take on these requests, without letting go of something else.
The reasons for taking on the requests without letting go of something else are again obvious. Perhaps you’ve spent a lot of effort to publicize the value of your department and the good work you do. The new demands indicate your department is finally getting noticed. The requests provide the fulfillment you were lacking when you moved into management. They’re a sign that you’ve succeeded—something you can point to and say “This came about because of my leadership.” They feel flattering—people recognize that you and your team can be counted on to create great information and to lead the way into new content strategies. You want to please.
Further, the new work is likely to be far more interesting than what your group has been doing. You don’t want someone else doing it while you are stuck doing the same old thing. It’s an opportunity for everyone to grow professionally. It will bring some much needed life to the rut everyone has been stuck in.
It’s easy to see why we willingly take on the new responsibilities. But our inability to let go of something else now affects everyone in the department. You’ve increased commitments without increasing resources. You haven’t given them a new challenge to look forward to, but a greater workload to dread. As cool as the new work sounds, as much as you want to please, there must be a trade-off. The response must be, “We’d love to! What can we stop doing in order to make it happen?”
Unlike moving to a new job, however, where someone else takes over your old responsibilities, what you let go of may not continue. No one will pick up the ball and run with it. You are leaving it behind in favor of new strategies. And that makes letting go even more difficult. You need permission to let go. You need justification to let go. And we are often unprepared to offer that trade.
As a manager, I think you should always be looking for what your team could stop doing —what you can let go of. But we are afraid to do so—afraid of becoming unimportant, afraid of justifying ourselves out of existence. And so we cling to every task we’ve ever been given, conveniently forgetting to examine if it is actually of any value. We still produce monolithic tomes of information and publish them as PDF documents when users want easily accessible topics delivered to their mobile devices. We still write dozens of thorough conceptual topics about stuff we think users must know to complete a task when no one ever reads them. We still document every field on a dialog box for consistency even though all but one of them is self-explanatory. We still follow a rigid editorial process when user tolerance has been proven to be high for copyedit mistakes as long as the information is accurate and timely. We still maintain our territories, creating our own technical content independently while other departments create similar information just down the hall.
One of the most common complaints I hear from information development managers today is that they don’t have the time and resources to do everything that needs to be done. In the trends survey we just completed, it’s the number one issue that is preventing managers for responding to demands from users. We struggle to justify getting more resources. We look for tools to help us do everything more efficiently or that can automate parts of the process. We ask the question, how can I do more with less. I submit this is the wrong question. It’s time to stop looking for ways to do it all and start looking at what needs to be done.
It’s time to let go.