One of the best leaders I ever worked with was my first XO at 1-14th Cavalry David Polizzotti. One day while we were deployed to Afghanistan I was stressing about something and he very calmly looked at me and told me that I needed to do a better job at accepting that I as an individual was a wholly replaceable cog in the machine. At the time that felt like a hard thing to swallow. I was a primary staff member for a combat squadron in an active combat zone. I felt a little big in my multi-cam britches.
After some further discussion he helped me see the bigger picture of the value of making yourself disposable in building robust and capable teams. In the Army and particularly important for combat arms teams. Any given individual on the team could die at any time. Combat is unpredictable, bullets don’t discriminate by rank. Even on the less violent side of life in the Army everyone rotates out eventually. You are reassigned, take leave, R&R from combat. All of these events take leaders and team members out of the fight; but the team has to keep accomplishing it’s mission. The organization never gets a day off from providing national defense.
If your team can’t survive someone being suddenly and completely removed from the day to day operations then leaders haven’t done their job to build resilient teams. Every team member needs to cross train with their team members to make sure that they are cross trained. This includes not just hard skills like the use of weapons, radios and performing medical tasks. But team members need to also think up a level and be prepared to take up leadership of the team. Do they understand troop leadership, do they know the mission, can they make decisions to forward the mission when the plan has gone to absolute hell.
A favorite example is this scene from “We Were Soldiers”
You might ask why I have written all of this under the heading of product management. People rarely die as a result the middle of building software. But, people disappear all the time. They move to a new company, take an internal transfer, get pulled to some new project, go on vacation. These are all things that people will and must do. You have to be prepared for them and the fundamentals of building robust teams do not change.
You cannot bottleneck the entire team or team of teams on the fact that one product manager is out of the office this week. One of the underlying fundamentals of empowered teams and robust resilient organizations is making sure that the team can cary on without individuals in all roles. If you ever come to a point where someone says “Oh, I can’t do that because X isn’t here this week.” That is a place where your process and training need to get better.
Not only is this good for the organization if someone is away, it helps the organization move faster. If you aren’t blocked on a product manager being away on vacation, you aren’t blocked when they are in a meeting or at an offsite. You don’t have to break the cycle of fast thinking to go ask someone a question.
The further up the org chart you go the more important it is. We want teams on the line to be thinking in fast mode and leaders at the top to be using slow system thinking. The more you push decision making authority and context down. The more you time and space you get back to be able to do the leadership things that only you can do.