Choosing Your Battles

Often, you notice these things while you’re doing something else and do a double-take. You’re glancing over emails trying to find a thread, and notice an update someone made. Maybe you saw a conversation in a Slack channel you rarely read. It can even be a sentence uttered in the hallway. But there’s no escaping it: you are now aware that someone in your organization is doing something wrong.

Well, “wrong” might be too harsh. You spot that something is not done optimally, and now you need to choose what to do about it. Note that I’m not talking about your direct reports, but about more distant people in the org-chart, like ICs or team leads. What should you do?

Don’t Barge In

The first thing to keep in mind is that swooping in and “making things right” is not the right course of action. Unless the mistake will cause an emergency should it happen, avoid the knee-jerk reaction. Before we even get to talking about whether there genuinely is a problem going on, you have to realize that you cannot fix everything.

As the organization grows, you will not be able to be involved in every minute detail. Some mistakes and errors will happen and don’t even get me started about the number of things that will not be done as you would have. That’s part of the cost of scaling, you have to learn to let go of some of the things that take place, or you will establish yourself as a royal bottleneck.

Therefore, you should pick your fights keeping in mind the ROI of your efforts, as well as the opportunity cost. Any minute you spend on this matter could have been invested elsewhere.

This Is Important

If you come to the conclusion that this issue is important enough that it deserves your attention, you should still avoid swooping in with your cape. There are two major reasons for this. The first, which should be straightforward, is that doing so is undermining your managers. You might “fix” one problem but introduce another. The other reason is that you should give your managers credit: they might already be addressing the issue.

That is, good managers are often aware of problems and are working with their employees to improve their skills and abilities. However, since this often requires ongoing coaching, you might witness issues that have not been fixed yet but are being attended to. Don’t go in assuming you know everything better than anyone else.

Fighting The Fights

As I recently told an executive I work with, the real issue is rarely the problem you’ve seen, but understanding whether that employee’s manager is aware of it. In order for your organization to scale effectively, you have to be able to rely on your managers for noticing important problems and addressing them themselves. You want to address the root cause and not the symptoms and understand what is going on here.

That’s why I always recommend bringing the issue up with the relevant manager and seeing what they think and are doing. Are they unaware? Are they working on it? Do they know about it but don’t think it’s really an issue? Without understanding this, you cannot be sure what is the right way to handle the matter.

At the end of the day, this is the sort of work you should be doing to address problems: make sure that your managers and leaders are capable of doing the right thing themselves, so you can let go. Sometimes this merely requires clarification, and other times it might become a growth goal for one of your managers. Yes, it can even lead you to realize that someone is not a great fit in their position. The bottom line is that this is virtually always the right level of operation for you as the organization scales. Fix things at the point that creates the most leverage, at the right altitude, as opposed to fighting in the trenches.