Seeking greater work/work balance
August 14, 2017 12:35 PM   Subscribe

I've recently moved into a role that's supposed to be 50% project management/client relations and 50% project work (from a role that was basically just an individual contributor). The project management side of things is going well, but I'm finding it hard to carve out the time and space for actual project work. Does anyone have tips for wearing multiple hats and still being effective in diverse aspects of a job?

As part of a shift to a more formal Scrum/Agile setup, my company (a small software consultancy) re-organized our teams and I ended up in a role that's 50% project management and client relations (Product Owner, in Scrum terminology). My 5-person team supports three small-ish client projects, and 50% of my time is taken up with working with clients to identify and prioritize the work they want done, and working with the team to translate that into a backlog of tasks that we can work through. That side of things is going great. So far both the clients and the team seem pretty happy with how everything's running.

It's the other 50% of my job that feels like it's falling by the wayside. I'm finding it very hard to carve out the time and energy to actually chip in and push our projects forward. This is distressing for a couple reasons:

- I feel like I need to keep my hand in on these projects if I'm going to be able to help the clients and the team make good technical and design decisions on them in the long term.
- I feel like I'm not pulling my weight on the team if I'm not doing project work.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I find project work much more satisfying, and feel like if I spend all my time doing management stuff, I'm going to burn out sooner or later.

If the issue were simply one of not having enough time to do both, that would be one thing, but I often find myself at a loose end during the work day, but unable to start in on a technical task. Sometimes it's because my attention is interrupted by the needs of my team. (Being both the product owner and the most experienced software developer on the team means that I'm the main sounding board whenever a problem comes up). Sometimes it's because the scheduling needs of juggling three clients doesn't leave me large blocks of time to actually focus on a problem. Sometimes it's because I'm new to almost all of the projects we're working on, and just getting acquainted with the relevant code base takes up most of the time I have to work on a problem. And sometimes I just find myself mentally exhausted after juggling meetings with clients and trying to keep all the plates spinning that I don't have the energy to focus in the work hours I have left over.

So I'm asking the hivemind, what are your tips and strategies for balancing jobs that involve taking on disparate roles with disparate demands? I know that these types of roles are reasonably common, so how do people cope?
posted by firechicago to Work & Money (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Your instincts are telling you right. This is not going to work. These roles may be common, but they're not a good idea.
You are trying to have both a maker and a manager schedule.

"- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I find project work much more satisfying, and feel like if I spend all my time doing management stuff, I'm going to burn out sooner or later."
You're already there. Treat yourself like you're burning out because this isn't helping you grow.
posted by msamye at 12:58 PM on August 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

I suffer from something similar in my job and the only thing I've found that works is blocking out sections of my schedule, sometimes even whole days, to work on the actual production (writing and research in my case).

It's not perfect and often I used to feel conflicted about being temporarily unavailable to my team and clients, but I found that over time, most of them got used to it and are now able to appreciate the fact that I am truly present when I'm with them.
posted by rpfields at 1:43 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I had a role like this for a couple of years. I agree there's an intrinsic tension between these two types of work, and it's nearly impossible to do both at once without one or the other suffering. I've since moved back into an IC role full-time.

But, while I was in it, I found it helpful to:
  • Arrange my schedule so that most of my PM/manager obligations were on certain days, and then block off other days on my calendar as coding days. This is not perfect - for instance, if your teammates are blocked, you don't want to make them wait for days to talk to you - but it helps, especially if you get buy-in from others in the company to not schedule meetings during your coding days.
  • When I had brief bursts of free time but was too unfocused to code, I'd instead read over other people's pull requests to keep up on what was going on
  • Be realistic about my diminished IC productivity/predictability, and assign myself technical tasks that didn't block anyone else and weren't tied to project deadlines (e.g. small refactors). Often these tasks are less glamorous, and it's a bummer to feel like you're giving all the fun meaty work to other people, buuuut that leads into:
  • Try to let go of the idea that my work performance was defined by my direct project work. Observe and push back against self-talk like "I didn't do any real work today, I just had meetings and 1:1s all day" etc. This is a huge perspective shift and is really hard, especially because the successes that come with management can be more abstract/intangible than the successes of building things yourself. However, it's essential for being a) happy b) effective in a management role.

posted by introcosm at 1:49 PM on August 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

#1. You don't need to be at every meeting. This is a weird one to say about a project manager, but it is true.
#2. You can schedule meetings to get things done. ie: block your calendar off.
#3. Take notes within your email client and email out the summary after the meeting. This allows and structures you to be the authority in how the meeting is recorded.
#4. Agile means that you only have your own resources available AFTER you've completed your standard work. This means, if you have 50% of your time as a hard defined project manager, your utilization/availability for work-work is half that of your co-workers. Remind people this. You are not Captain Fire-drill anymore.
#5. Communicate priorities to peers.
#6. A manager that is a doer is one that has to rely on the project to half govern itself... meaning that for those you report to: they'd better have the right people on the job, because you cannot babysit, PM, and produce - it just isn't possible.
#7. Time, Money, Quality. Pick 2. Remind management which one they are not getting.
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:03 PM on August 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I may have misunderstood, but from your description it sounds like you are overseeing/managing your team to some degree, or at least helping point them in the right direction?

If so, perhaps you can delegate the more detailed or uncertain tasks to your team members, and work closely with them to review their results, and redirect where necessary? It depends on the skill level of your teammates and how you work with them, but maybe it would be more manageable to have them do the legwork and have ongoing check-ins with them, rather than you doing detailed work. This way you can can also get a feel of where potential roadblocks are and communicate them more effectively to your clients and management.

Another idea is designing a framework or plan for a specific task and have someone else complete the details.
posted by watrlily at 5:03 PM on August 14, 2017

Agreeing with msamye says above: these types of roles may be common, but they're still stupid. Management requires a totally different mindset from production, and a different way of managing your time as well. A good manager needs to always be available to their team, while a good producer needs to be able to work undistracted for long stretches of time. These two things are at odds with one another.

Also, I've never met anyone who found both types of work equally fulfilling. People generally prefer to either Make Stuff or Be In Charge, but rarely are they equally into both. Sometimes people who want to Make Stuff allow themselves to get pulled into management because management generally pays better and carries more prestige, but often they're unhappy there and do badly. (Not saying that you're doing badly, but you do sound as if you don't care for the managerial side of things as much.)

Also, doing half management and half production—and doing it well—is considerably harder than doing either one full-time. It's just not very efficient to have to switch back and forth. It's not realistic to expect that you'll get as much management done as half of a full-time manager, plus as much production as half a full-time producer. Maybe one third and one third would be more doable. Unless you're willing to significantly expand your work hours and your company is willing to pay you handsomely for it, you're just not going to be getting as much done as somebody with a more focused role.

Personally, in your shoes, I'd be looking at this as an untenable situation and be trying to finagle my way out of it, back to a position where I could focus on something that I enjoyed.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:13 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

I agree with what's been written above about this position being untenable, long term. Been there, done that, burned out, regret it. But if for whatever reasons you're stuck here for awhile (and, hopefully, for values of "awhile" less than 3-6 months), there are some approaches that might help.

1. *You* are the best positioned to determine where, amongst many competing buckets, to place your time/energy/focus. Let this empower you to make decisions, decisively, without worrying too much about what the outcome will be. It's ok to be a bit ruthless here. It is better sometimes to ask forgiveness than permission. AND, if and when the outcome is not perfect, you have a *great* excuse - you've been asked to take on a new role, with multiple hats, competing priorities. People will understand and allow you to try new approaches, and adjust when necessary.

2. 2nding the recommendation above about not needing to be at every meeting. You need to be ruthless with your meeting time, especially if it's sapping your time and energy - don't underestimate the ongoing/cascading cost of that. I suspect you may find that occasionally skipping a meeting (when you really need to focus on 'Project Work') will have less of a negative downside than you anticipate. If necessary, delegate the minute-taking to another person. Another approach - attend the meeting for only half the scheduled time. Announce at the beginning that you have a clash and need to leave early. This may help give you the floor so that your concerns are discussed early and fully, then you can bolt and have time available for other things.

3. That 'maker and manager schedule' essay linked to above is gold. If you've read some of Graham's other writings -- many of which are, well, asshattery of the finest kind -- don't let them dissuade you. This piece is The Goods and given what you've written, I suspect you would find it very helpful.

4. It's really good that you [already] understand well which aspects of work you are more attuned to. You understand your strengths. Play to your strengths, rather than investing a surfeit of energy in improving where you're weak.

5. Remember that you're not responsible for the reorganization that brought you here, nor the outcome, whether success or failure. Someone else made that decision, most likely for a list of reasons reasons that does not include what's good for You.
posted by armoir from antproof case at 5:28 PM on August 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

And HELL YES to this suggestion from Introcosm: "... Observe and push back against self-talk like "I didn't do any real work today, I just had meetings and 1:1s all day" etc. This is a huge perspective shift and is really hard, especially because the successes that come with management can be more abstract/intangible than the successes of building things yourself. However, it's essential for being a) happy b) effective in a management role"
posted by armoir from antproof case at 5:44 PM on August 14, 2017

Hi! So, I am an Agile coach. Prior to moving into coaching, I have been a Scrum Master, a Product Owner and a Relase Train Enginner in a Scaled Agile train. I've trained and coached lots of teams. Do you know what I would tell you if you were a Product Owner on one of my teams?

Being an awesome PO is a full time job, especially since it sounds like your teams are supporting multiple efforts (different clients and stakeholders?) you need to manage the backlog, prioritize, define it, solicit feedback, answer questions for the team, and accept work.

I understand that you feel the PO work doesn't contribute as much as "project work" and I can promise you that is not the case. Because what happens if you don't do the PO work? Your team won't have anything to do (yes, I had a team throw a football around for a few days because the PO couldn't define work. Yes, they charged their time because they were fully allocated. ) I have had POs not be available and it means the team doesn't have the collaboration they need to successfully get to the definition of done. They either build things that weren't needed or did not meet expectations or they are not able to make progress because they can't get answers to their questions or their work accepted.

And as PO, you need to spend a lot of time with clients, stakeholders and users to solicit feedback and understand their needs so that you can effectively define the backlog. How you help your team with this is by taking on the burden yourself and protecting them from having a ton of stakeholders and clients asking them for stuff. Instead they come to YOU and you understand their needs and establish the backlog. You contribute to the work by taking on that burden and responsibility so the team can have clear direction and prioritization.

Also, and I'm sorry to say this because you said you like "project work" which I take to mean development/architectural work that contributes to the solution, I would never suggest a person act as the PO and be a developer/architect. It's a conflict of interest. As a PO, you define and own the "what" and the development team owns the "how" and "how much." When the PO gets too into the technical solution, you may drive a team toward one solution and be less open to other decisions. Having a product mindset and a development mindset are different. You can switch but that takes time and is harder than keeping one hat on. And, as you are finding out, your PO work will drag down your output as a developer. I am big on limiting work in process because of the loss of efficiency with context switching and you're switching context every time you change your role hat. It sounds like you're tired at the end of the day and part of that is because of all of the switching you're doing.

So, I would suggest... BE A ROCK STAR PO. OWN IT! But it's not a full time job you say? Then do you have a release plan? Roadmap? Those are great things for POs to work on. Have those and still have time? Help develop people. They keep coming to you because you're the strongest technical person? How can you help others get that knowledge? Can you do specific training on certain things to develop their skills? And quite frankly, can you encourage them to try something out and see how it goes? teams should be self organizing and self managing.. so let them organize and manage around the work. Let them figure out the how. You don't need to guide hem to the best solution.

Remember... just because you are not rolling up your sleeves and touching code, does not mean that you are not contributing. The PO is an absolutely critical role and teams really struggle without an effective PO. Don't think of it as "management." Think of it as product strategy! You own the vision for that product!

Ultimately, you may decide that you prefer to be on the Dev team rather than play the PO role. If so, that's ok too. Find something that makes you happy... but I don't think balancing the two will work.
posted by polkadot at 6:48 PM on August 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

Good advice above, particularly from polkadot.

My recommendation is that you stop considering your job being a 50%/50% split between project work and PO work, and just consider everything you do at work to be your job.

Also, this is exactly what Scrum and Agile are for. You work out daily assignments from your appropriately-themed backlogs of appropriately-scoped and -prioritised tasks at your stand-up and just get them done, and you get them done. Doesn't matter what category the task falls under, it needs doing and so you do it. The democracy of your sprint planning will have made it clear in advance what's important.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:10 PM on August 14, 2017

I've been on teams like this. It's usually not your decision but rather how upper management copes with a temporary or even chronic (ugh) resource shortage.

I've seen people who coped by doing PO work during the day when people need you and then coding later when the office is quiet. This strategy can work but it's abusive.

I like rpfields suggestion better-- "schedule" your coding time in blocks so you are sometimes available to your team and sometimes not. As long as your team and clients know they have your full attention at other times, they will adapt.
posted by scorpia22 at 5:24 AM on August 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

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