Blocking and Unblocking in Leading Teams

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Leading a team may not be a new thing to me but having an official role to lead is. I felt the pressure more because other than improving myself while delivering values to the company (and its users), I need to make sure that my team also grows with me. I try to learn from all possible sources like friends, articles, and books, yet nothing beats learning from experience. Because by experiencing the problems firsthand, all those suggestions make sense. One of many things I discover is leading a team requires a balance of blocking and unblocking.

Someone once told me that when you lead you need to unblock blockers your team has, so they can deliver an optimum outcome. This has been one of my main priorities in managing my team day-to-day. There are several types of blockers I commonly found:

  1. Team has reached their maximum capacity or knowledge to solve the problems
  2. Team has no authority to solve this by themselves; hence the escalation
  3. Team has not yet seen the blockers but you, because of experience or more comprehensive view, can anticipate this

You need to be sharp to notice when the blockers appear because sometimes the team does not realize they are there. The more junior team members are, the more time for them to realize that they have blockers.

Unblocking can also be in various forms

  1. Empowering the team to have the knowledge to solve the problem on their own
  2. Setting up the priority of tasks when their plate is full, so they know what to solve first
  3. Communicating necessary information so they can see what you see to mitigate possible blockers
  4. Getting your hands dirty. This will be my very last option because I believe the team needs the challenges to grow but sometimes the condition does not permit us to do that.

Then, from experience I learned that I need to do the opposite too: Blocking, to make the team productive.

Working in product development sometimes feels like we are a genie that grants wishes. We have a lot of wishlists which come from internal and external parties. Yet, resources are always scarce. Making sure the team is working on the right things requires you to block unnecessary requests.

Not only the workload but sometimes you also need to block some information that is too early to share. I am lucky to work in a culture when transparency is one of our values. Transparency does not mean that everyone must know everything at the same time, though. Some strategy when it is too raw may not be beneficial to be informed to a larger audience because it may still be changed and it can lead into perception that leaders are fickle. Because their context is not enough to understand why the changes required. While I agree to keep communication open about what company and other division are doing, I somehow believe a certain level of “readiness” must be fulfilled for the information to share.

This might be common sense from some people or those who work in a large company when hierarchy and bureaucracy are in place. For me, this is not something that I immediately grasp. Because I was against it. I loved sharing everything with the team I lead. Especially because they are also my friends. I also work in a tech digital company with not that many employees, so pretty much everyone knows what everyone else is doing. But when we are getting bigger, and things turn out to be more complicated in an ever-changing business, there are two choices in distributing information: communicate everything with the complete context or block the information until it is ready. The first may not always be feasible, because of time or other limitations.

I learned it the hard way. Once there was an initiative that comes from management. As always, I talked to my team once I received the information. Without any filtering. Little did I know, that it causes the team to feel unmotivated because they felt like we kept changing priority. What I failed to communicate was the complete context of why the request was there in the first place. From that point forward, I try to be concious in giving information so that I give enough context or keep a few things until things are in a better shape.

Both unblocking and blocking are skills that I still try to grasp and improve. Knowing when to use them and how far I should go is still tricky to me.

July ‘20.

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asti ayuningtyas

asti ayuningtyas

A working mom/product manager hustling to build loveable products at work and perfect pancakes at home. Interested in my book? https://bit.ly/3CNfDmT