🚥 Accelerate Change

Have you ever been in a vehicle outfitted with a passenger brake? I must've seen one of these things when I was a kid, because the image stuck with me. I assumed that when I learned to drive, it would be in a car equipped this way, but I guess that this set-up is not all that common.

passenger brake
Old-school passenger brake. Image credit: OSBrake

As an engineer, I can imagine why a passenger brake probably wouldn't make a car any safer, even if the driver is inexperienced. Introducing another a control system, even one intended as a safety measure, adds complexity and new failure modes that are hard to anticipate and test. Also, it's usually a bad idea to diffuse responsibility for critical operations like stopping.

But this image of a passenger brake has always evoked the management relationship for me. And it's not because I think managers should use, or even have, a passenger brake! Now, some of my former managers definitely leaned on the passenger brake. I would bring them an initiative or a suggestion or just the spark of an idea, and their impulse would be to slow it down, corral it, sync it up with other things.

Sure, part of their job as a manager is to keep everyone safe, and there are a lot of dimensions to this: there's psychological safety, which is critical for healthy team function. There's system safety, which I firmly believe is ultimately the manager's responsibility. And there's also protection from churn and reductionist intervention by other parts of the organization. So there's a lot for the manager to protect, and slowing things down is one way to do that. But at this point, I hope we can all agree that they can't promote safety just by trying to avoiding risk. One thing I learned first-hand at Facebook is that the biggest risk of all is not taking enough risk.

So this image resonates for me because I like to imagine that instead of a brake, I have more like a passenger accelerator pedal. If you tell me that me that you wonder what would happen if we took this turn too fast, then I want you to try, because in general, at work, unlike in the car, the risks of failure are low and the rewards for taking risks are high. If you tell me that you think maybe just possibly we might need to make some change—especially one that is painful to contemplate, one that would necessitate a bunch of hard conversations and sincere questioning, then I will latch on to that if I think it has any merit at all. I want us both to cultivate a habit of fearlessly questioning everything. I want you to overcome your resistance to engaging with messy things and things that are hard to think about. Revisiting goals, planning a re-org or performance managing an employee are not fun, and it's easier to focus on what's going well.

But I do this because I believe that maybe the biggest part of the manager's job is to accelerate change. Managers need to routinely think the unthinkable. They should meditate on the inevitable dissolution of their team; become comfortable with the certainty of their own demise; embrace the eventual heat-death of the universe.

And I realize through writing this that a driving lesson is a pretty good analogy for the overall manager/report relationship. Because the fact is, just like there aren't a lot of real-world passenger brakes, there aren't a lot of real controls that managers have, beyond the words they say. The driving student is clearly the one in control.

I like this because it means I don't have to know everything about driving or about cars to be a good manager. You're on the highway. See that car merging from the on-ramp? Are you going to let them go in front of you or behind you? I don't know what the best answer is; the important thing is that you make a decision. You can slow down or speed up, but you are responsible for that. I can help anticipate the decision, frame it up, fit it into the long history of bad choices made merging at high speeds.

Most of the time, I should probably just shut up and let you drive. Maybe I can help by finding a good song on the radio or making nice conversation or just holding the silence. But the whole point is to prepare you for when I'm not even in the car. I just need to be unflappable, no matter what happens, even if inside I'm a little scared. It doesn't help either of us of I start panicking.

And the important thing for us to both to realize is that you're driving! We are going to the same place, but you are responsible for our destination. You are responsible not just for your safety, but for mine. I'm here to help you, but a powerful way for me to do that is just to pass the time with you. I'm tempted to comment on each little thing, but I try not to say too much. Maybe we turn on the radio and it's like

🎵 I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone
I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn
I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs
I crashed my car into the bridge
I don't care, I love it 🎶

The sun is out and the windows are open and you're already going fast but I want you to push it a little bit. The conditions are fine and I want to see what you can do. And who knows? Maybe you're the next Danica Patrick and I'm just a schlub driving instructor. Part of learning to drive is about figuring out your limits. So I'll turn up the radio and we'll enjoy our time together! Punch the gas and let's see where this road takes us.