Toddlers, management, and the illusion of choice

Raising a toddler has taught me a surprising amount about management.

I realize that probably sounds condescending, but I actually don’t mean it to be at all.

Toddlers are humans showing the first inklings of social behavior. However, unlike adults, they have no shame in showing you how they truly feel, usually by yelling at you or throwing stuff. This tightens the feedback loop when you’re trying to figure out how they tick.

One such insight I gained from my toddler: a few years ago when I was first named a tech lead at Google, I wasn’t given much training. However, I knew that I was supposed to let the engineers on my team choose the projects they worked on. The rationale here seemed sound: people are going to be more effective working on projects they’re personally interested in.

So I gave clarity on an overarching goal for our team and let the other engineers choose projects that brought us closer to that goal, providing input when asked.

To put it succinctly, chaos ensued. The new engineers on the team lacked the necessary context required to choose good projects and our team fell short of its goals.

Furthermore, even they were frustrated: they lacked the context to pick right-size projects and would instead end up with too-difficult ones. This led to a lack of incremental wins and ultimately burnout.

In response, I swung the pendulum the other way: “this is what you’ll be working on”, I proclaimed. The result was equally uninspiring: the engineers ended up working on projects that they didn’t feel interested or invested in.

This was frustrating to me: I tried both approaches and neither worked well. What else could I do?

Now that I’m a parent, I can see my mistake clearly. My toddler responds… poorly to commands. He has little sense of what needs to get done in a day, yet has a desperate need to feel control over that day. Complicating matters, if he detects even a whiff of a command he’ll push hard in the opposite direction. Newton’s third law in action.

Here’s the parenting trick: present two or three options that you’d be equally happy with them choosing and let them decide. A few examples you’ll hear often at my house:

  • Do you want to eat grapes or strawberries for lunch?
  • Do you want to go upstairs to get changed now or in a minute?
  • Do you want to go to the park with the broken slide or the park with the bumblebee?

Using this same principle, engineering managers can let the engineers with the necessary context mostly dictate the set of projects for the team. Then, when a junior engineer needs more work, you give them a few right-size options, some pros and cons of each, and let them decide between those options. 

They end up with right-ish difficulty projects that provide meaningful opportunities for growth, but maintain that important sense of ownership over their work.

Now as these junior engineers grow, it’s critical to allow them to propose projects of their own. Doing so builds useful skills in scoping, planning, and technical communication. However, relying on this “illusion of choice” for a while gives them an opportunity to build context and confidence.

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