"What is the biggest problem I can solve now?" asked a new employee.

"I don't want you to solve anything," I replied. "At least not yet."

What's wrong with an assertive new employee with good intentions?

Just about everything. Here's why, and here's how I fixed it on my team.

When doctors start, they learn to draw blood . . . not do open heart surgery.
When sales people start, they shadow managers . . . not get introduced to the biggest clients.
Even at Facebook, engineers spend a month fixing bugs . . . not building new mobile features.

On any prioritization of impact, the smaller activities that people start doing are typically lower priorities. However, they have incalculable benefits. For one, they have very little downside risk. And two, they enable a lot of practice in a short period of time. As practice leads to perfection, employees can add complexity until they're eventually doing the most high-impact work.

It's natural for the best employees to want to make a big impact; that's likely a key trait that led to their hiring. But, as leaders, when we give our employees big impact projects before they're ready, we're setting them up to fail. We didn't spend significant time and money recruiting them to set them on that path.

Instead, I encourage the following behavior:

1) Understand. For my team, that means learning the metrics we care about most, using our products every day, and lots of shadowing. When I started, I spent 30 days carefully watching, listening, and taking notes. I didn't ask for product changes. I didn't call partners. I didn't talk at staff meetings. I found this very hard.

2) Seek small wins. Because they're small, it's unlikely that others are working on them. They're also quick, so an employee can complete 5 or 10 tasks and learn through doing each one. Most importantly, these projects teach people how to fail safely. And when they fail, the impact won't hurt them or their working relationships. As an example, I wanted to use public relations as a marketing lever. To do this, I made my first interview a two-minute call with a local radio reporter. I was practicing and learning to fail. Many dozens interviews later, I was ready for broadcast TV.

3) Know when to ramp up. In the same way it would have been irresponsible of me to do a live TV segment as my first interview, it would be similarly irresponsible of me NOT to ramp up my impact once I was ready. Ironically, my recent hires became so excited about delivering quick wins that I had to remind them that they were actually ready for the harder, and higher impact, work.

The real question that employees and managers can solve together is "What's the biggest problem I can solve in my time at the company?"

Published on: Sep 3, 2014