Why can't they just...?

Originally posted Apr 21, 2017

Stealing a page out of other leaders’ books, I began writing a “Week in Review” post every two weeks or so at Etsy, with a link open to anyone internally, and a distribution list of the people in my organization. I used it as a reflection on themes that were coming up in weekly one-on-ones, backchannels, team meetings, etc.

This Week in Review post touched on a refrain I began to hear more and more often as changes were happening internally at the company. It’s slightly edited to make sense to those unfamiliar with the issues I’m referencing.

tl;dr of this lengthy, philosophical WIR: When you’re wondering about why senior leadership isn’t behaving a way you wish they would, approach this by: 1) assuming best intentions, 2) fostering curiosity over cynicism, and 3) thinking about where you have influence.

The question “Why can’t they just…” has been a common theme I’ve heard these two past weeks. “Why can’t they just X” is, at its core, a great question - “why can’t they just find spending cuts elsewhere?” or “why can’t they just tell us what the technical strategy is?” or “why can’t they just tell engineers to write more tests?” - these are all valid questions that come from a place of deep concern.

(I’m not going to philosophize in this WIR on who “they” really means, though the “they” has LAYERS of juiciness and reasons why it’s easier to say “they” than who it really is: often senior engineering leadership, or senior leadership overall at Etsy.)

For the last five weeks, I’ve had a seat at the table of senior engineering leadership, as I’m covering part of the VP of Engineering’s responsibilities while he’s been on parental leave. It’s been part-stressful, part-insightful, part-overwhelming, part-growth for me. There’s a lot that I don’t know how to do, but I’ve tried to learn very quickly (wowzers, corporate budgeting!).

This season has shown me not just more about why we can’t just X, but also, how deeply hard it often is to just do X. Maybe that’s because there are legal constraints or tax constraints; maybe that’s because we are working on it but changing X takes a really long time. Maybe it’s because we’ve already done X, but not in a way that’s landed with you.

But the blocker typically isn’t any of the following often-cited guesses from people in my conversations about “why can’t they just”:

The question “why can’t they just” is valid, because it’s coming from a place of your concern, about something that is either deeply affecting your ability to get work done, or affecting your trust in senior leadership, or affecting your trust in the company. We can’t avoid this question (nor should we). So then, what can be done about X?

My response usually comes in three parts:

  1. First, here’s my take based on my scope of authority: Here’s how this relates to Product Infrastructure, the primary group of people I feel responsible for and accountable to. Here’s my stand on this topic, as the leader of this area. Here’s my opinion on it, here’s how I’ve thought about it, and here’s what I am or am not doing about it, with my core job responsibilities in mind.
  2. Beyond my core scope of responsibility, here’s what I’m seeing others (often senior leaders) do or think. Here’s how I sense they’re approaching it - here’s what questions they may be asking themselves, here’s what they may be weighing. With my seat at that table now more than ever, I can share some more insight into what is already being worked on, or what blockers are coming up.
  3. Given all of that, where do you fit into this question? What do you have influence over, or how are you tackling this question? What data are you gathering? Where are you getting your hands dirty, where are you helping to enact change? In what ways do you not feel empowered to step up into this work? What can I do to change that?

By and large, those who ask, “why don’t they just” aren’t yet in the weeds with the problem, or haven’t had experience with this problem before. This makes sense: if you already had the experience in it, you would probably be trying to figure out why they don’t just, or you’d be actively working to fix it based on your past experience. For instance, a coworker recently shared with me his realizations about why reorg communications are incredibly hard; in the past, it was easy to say “why don’t they just”, but now, being responsible for it for the first time, he can see why it’s much more nuanced and challenging than the tip of the iceberg he saw before.

While it’s true that you may not feel empowered to effect the change you’re looking for, or want other leaders to just do the thing you think is right, I encourage you to think through that third set of questions. You do have influence, if not authority; your influence can take the form of curiosity, and of assuming best intentions as you go. The answer to “why can’t they just” might be a three-hour answer, because if there was a short answer, they’d probably have done it already. :)

And I’m here to support you through this - I may ask you challenging questions, and push you to do more research and listening, but in return I will give you my personal take as well as my “temporary seat at the table” take. I think there are so many opportunities to do this kind of work right now, and it’s my job to help you find them.

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