Go Time vs Go Slow Time

If you are working as an engineering manager at any level, there’s a strong chance that you came from a coding background. You were probably used to working through piles of tickets on a regular cadence like a Sprint or using a Kanban board. The definition of success was pretty straightforward, get through as many tickets as possible and add value to users.

But now, as an engineering manager, it’s less clear what success looks like. There is no Kanban board. There is no working to sprints. There’s just stuff to do. All the time. In the chaos.

And this is when you reach a crossroads. There will come a time when the chaos starts to slow down, and you can breathe, and things are not on fire.

And it will be terrifying.

What does it mean if your calendar isn’t full of meetings all the time? What will your boss think? What will your line reports think? What will you say you have been doing to justify your existence?

There are two choices here. You can embrace the space and do something productive with it, or you can choose to set the world on fire yourself and create more chaos. There will always be chaos waiting for you to find it.

How you react in these moments will define your success as a leader and the culture that you set in your teams.

Performance Zone vs Learning Zone

‘The performance zone maximises our immediate performance, while the learning zone maximises our growth and our future performance.’ - Eduardo Briceño

Before we go any further, I want to talk about the excellent work of Eduardo Briceño and how it relates to our situation as managers. Eduardo has a wonderful Ted Talk I’d recommend watching on how to get better at the things you care about. He talks about how if we want to get better at something we can’t just be stuck in the ‘performance zone’ all the time, we have to make the space to get into the ‘learning zone’.

‘The learning zone is when our goal is to improve. Then we do activities designed for improvement, concentrating on what we haven’t mastered yet, which means we have to expect to make mistakes, knowing that we will learn from them.

That is very different from what we do when we’re in our performance zone, which is when our goal is to do something as best as we can, to execute. Then we concentrate on what we have already mastered and we try to minimise mistakes.’ - Eduardo Briceño.

As managers, we often find ourselves in the performance zone with critical projects to execute and fires to put out all around us. This is very important and must be done to ensure the business succeeds.

But the trouble with the performance zone is it’s addictive - it makes us feel good to be in the chaos. We can feel helpful and at our best. Our calendars can be packed and our self-worth intact. However chances are that we are not growing, innovating or at our creative best.

‘The reason many of us don’t improve much despite our hard work is that we tend to spend almost all of our time in the performance zone. This hinders our growth, and ironically, over the long term, also our performance.’ - Eduardo Briceño.

Eduardo states that to maximise our growth, we must deliberately oscillate between the performance zone and the learning zone. So what does this mean for us as managers?

Go Time

The performance zone for us as managers is what I call ‘Go Time’. This can include activities such as:

  • Facilitating a critical and urgent project.
  • Spinning up a new team.
  • Investigating bottlenecks or problems in a system.
  • Undertaking pay reviews across a department.
  • Reviewing the hiring processes.
  • Anything else your boss might drop on you at the last moment.

You’ve probably done these activities before and can do them without thinking. They are a core part of your job and your day-to-day. You just need to get sh*t done and there’s no room for learning, failure or reflection.

Eventually, you will have done the groundwork to set up your teams for success and can now let them fly and have room to breathe. If everything is quiet, you have done your job well. In terms of the Eisenhower Matrix, you should have few, if any, urgent/important tasks.

eisenhower matrix

It is absolutely vital to resist any temptation to immediately move the tasks from the other quadrants into urgent/important to protect our self-worth and fill our calendars. This is how we become the harbingers of chaos.

  • If it’s not urgent/not important leave it.
  • If it’s not urgent/important leave it.
  • If it’s urgent/not important delegate it if necessary or leave it.

Instead, embrace the learning zone.

Go Slow Time

I like to call the time when the flywheel is turning, the teams are performing, and chaos and confusion are minimal ‘Go Slow Time’. It’s important to normalise and label this as a phase you can mindfully recognise so that you can embrace it and it doesn’t cause the uncertainty and uneasiness of not ‘looking busy’.

This is the time for:

  • Consuming learning materials like books or courses.
  • Reflection and review of what has come before.
  • Receiving coaching and mentoring.
  • Generating new ideas to try in a ‘fail safely’ environment.
  • Connecting with peers.
  • Asking for stretch assignments from our boss.

This can feel foreign because we spend so much time in the performance zone, and taking time to read or learn can make us feel vulnerable - as if we’re doing something selfish and not in service to the business. However, as leaders, we must role model this behaviour and ensure that we have time in our calendars for focus, reflection or other learning zone activities so that people in our teams feel empowered to do the same.

If we don’t, we and our teams will get stuck in the performance zone and never make any space for innovation, reflection or creativity. And if this happens, there’s a strong chance we’ll lose our competitive advantage as a business and demoralise and burn out ourselves and our staff.

Learning and improving ourselves and encouraging our teams to do the same feeds into delivery and execution and levels the entire organisation up. Self-improvement in service to execution is never selfish. It’s essential.

Healthy Oscillation

As I mentioned before, we want to oscillate between the learning zone and the performance zone, so it’s also vital for morale that we get back into ‘Go Time’ to apply our learning; otherwise, we risk ‘boreout’ from not being engaged.

reflective cycle (image from Eduardo’s talk)

Organisational health and competitive advantage rely on us making space for teams and ourselves to move between ‘Go Time’ and ‘Go Slow Time’ at a regular cadence.

And it starts with us as leaders, being brave enough to role model when we are in the learning zone and embracing it over spreading more comfortable chaos.