what would your role look like?
One of the biggest surprises in our recent move is how much my 9 year-old has been enjoying setting up her room and keeping it tidy. Her wolf figurines are carefully organized in packs on her bookshelf, the plants she asked me for regularly spritzed with a spray bottle. Her room is probably the most unpacked and intentional space in the house.
However, when she shared a room with her younger brother, the room was a mess. I could barely walk to their bunk beds to tuck them in at night. “But I like it messy!” she’d insist when I suggested that it might be time to clean up a bit.
Seeing her in her natural state in her own space makes me wonder, did she really like it messy? Or did she just say that because admitting to herself that she actually did like it to be much neater would mean confronting the dissonance between what she wanted and her current hard-to-change reality. Maybe she wanted it to be cleaner but didn’t want to do all the work of cleaning a shared room.
Or maybe she didn’t quite know her preferences of her own space, until she had it.
I’ve also had the experience of stating that the default is fine, when maybe I really wanted something else. When asked, what do you want to work on? “Oh, I can help with whatever the team needs most.” It felt good to be a team player, and it also protected me from the possibility of having a strong preference and being on a team where I wasn’t given that opportunity.
If you could have your way…
As someone who grew up trying to be collaborative, to be helpful, it’s hard to separate out what other people want from what I want. When I think about dinner ideas, my mind jumps automatically to how to accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions and preferences, rather than checking in with what I want to eat and then figuring out how to adjust from there.
I’m not the only one. People often are not in touch with what they really want, because they are thoughtfully considering the needs and desires of other.
A few years back, when I was coaching engineering leaders full-time, one hack I found for exploring what people want was this question:
“If you could have your way, what would your role look like?”
Something about this phrasing unlocks something. It’s permission to be indulgently selfish in thinking only about what you want. It’s playful. It’s an invitation for the other person to think about and share what it might look like if they didn’t have to consider anyone else.
Understanding what you want if you could have your way does create the opportunity for dissatisfaction if you can’t get it, especially in a work context. But for me, I appreciate having that visibility, and also acknowledging that there are times when I may have to work on something that the team needs but I’m not the most thrilled about.
As a manager, it can also be scary to open up that box. Suddenly, you know that an engineer on your team really wants to work on machine learning, but there’s nothing in the roadmap at all related to machine learning. You might feel responsible for making something happen now that you know it’s what they want. Wouldn’t it be easier to keep those preferences unknown?
But knowing what people want (and helping them figure out what they want) isn’t a promise to deliver on opportunities for them. It can just be an opportunity for them to feel heard, talk about what is important to them about it, and line up future opportunities. It may be that in the exploration of what’s exciting for them about machine learning that they realize, it’s not necessarily about machine learning, but the desire to learn something new (much easier to find an opportunity here).
These conversations create a shared understanding with people on your team that help you advocate for them and support them.
Try it out in your 1:1s and let me know how it goes!
You can imagine other work-related questions, like “If you could have your way, what would your ideal work day/week look like?”
You can also try this out with yourself and other people in your life in non-work contexts as well. Try to pair “if you could have your way” with an open-ended “what” question to get the richest information.
If you could have your way, what would you eat for dinner?
If you could have your way, what would your space look and feel like?
If you could have your way, what would you do this weekend?
If you could have your way, what would you do with a day off of work?
I might even try it with my kids next weekend, though they seem to have less trouble expressing what they want. Wish me luck.
Lead Time Chats
I recently had a great chat with Andy Detskas about building inclusive meeting cultures, one of the topics most near and dear to my heart. I especially appreciated his perspective on how inclusion starts on teams and meetings, and that builds a foundation for inclusive product design.
What I’ve been enjoying
Reverse konmari-ing my possessions - The konmari method is the tidying method popularized by Marie Kondo, of going through all the items in your home by category and only keeping those that spark joy. As we unpack, I’m being much more deliberate about what I want to keep, and what can go straight from our unpacked boxes to the pile of things to give to the Buy Nothing group.
Relatedly, seeing my 9 year-old develop an innate sense of what sparks joy. She recently decided to give away a stuffy that was a birthday gift. “I still like it, but when I look at it, it doesn’t give me the tingles anymore.”
EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE - if you’re comfortable going to a theater, I recommend the experience. If not, it’s streaming next week. I was told not to read too much about it, as it’s better to know less going in - and I agree with that suggestion.
What I’ve been struggling with
Outsourcing things that I can technically do. We hired movers with the understanding that they could do a lot of the packing, and that was something we were willing to pay for, but I still couldn’t help myself from putting 85% of our things in boxes.
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What about you? If you could have your way, what would your role look like? Always love hearing from people about things they’ve been enjoying or struggling with, and any thoughts or insights that come up!