Great Managers Are Investigators

If you’re a manager, reports have come to you asking for help to develop a skill. If that skill is one of your core skills, you take on the role of coach. Your goal is to condense your years of experience, hard lessons learned, tips, tricks, and tactics to accelerate your report’s development. You set up a coaching session, or a workshop that you’re confident will help.

You don’t even realize that you’ve made a significant error. The error is taking the ask at face-value. Assuming that they’ve identified the right skill to develop to give them the outcomes they want.

I have made the mistake of taking an ask at face-value. A new report was working in an area that I wasn’t overseeing. As the only designer in that area, they were responsible for prioritizing the work. They came to me and asked if I could help them prioritization more effectively. I was excited. I’m well versed in prioritization and knew I could help.

We scheduled a coaching session. I booked a room for a couple of hours to run through, and discuss the content I’d prepared around prioritization. We discussed various models of prioritization and how to create leverage. We explored how to apply concepts alone or use multiple approaches to reveal unique insights.

I thought the session was going well right up until the end when I asked them for feedback about the usefulness of the content. The material was great, but it didn’t help solve the problem.

I was nonplussed. Wasn’t the problem prioritization? I hadn’t identified the root cause of their problem. I felt like I had wasted both of our time. I asked for clarification to discover what I had failed to uncover in the original request.

“How do you know what goes on the list in the first place?” was the response. They didn’t need prioritization skills; they needed analysis, road mapping, strategy, and vision creation skills.

We had arrived at the root of the problem. We had found the bottleneck. If developed, these skills would help them thrive in their new situation. In this case, my report’s challenges figuring what to prioritize would become more manageable. They would be able to create clarity for themselves. They’d be able to define the destination, developing a plan to get there, and determine what work will deliver the most significant impact.

Arriving at the root cause is the most critical outcome to arrive at, even if you waste some time getting there. If you never identify the root cause, you will only address symptoms of a more systemic problem. By working on the systemic issues, the smaller symptoms resolve themselves over time. The worst outcome is never identifying the root problem.

Being an investigator is a critical skill for managers to develop. A good investigator shortens the time it takes to identify root causes and systemic issues, enabling people and teams to focus on genuinely impactful work.

Developing curiosity, crafting questions that reveal insight, and challenging your assumptions will help you become a better investigator.

In my example, asking a simple clarifying question upfront would have lead to a better understanding of the problem my report was facing. Ask great questions. Great questions reveal meaningful insights. By asking, “What are you hoping to achieve?” at the time of the request, I would have understood more about their challenges and how to support them best.

I had assumed that the ask to learn about prioritization was straight forward. Like many things, what appears straight forward rarely is. When you think something is simple, you likely don’t understand the problem well enough.

So please, put on your investigator hat and take the time to discover what’s really going on.

I help businesses build, lead, and manage design teams.

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