On side tasks

One of the hardest things as a manager is how to align individual drive on the right things. Often you have an engineer pushing hard on tasks that have low priority. They are enthusiastic about working on something that, business wise, isn’t that valuable. This can be Open Source work, trying a new tech or stack, or some low hanging fruit. As a manager, you see that miles away and wonder what to do. You know there are more important things to work on. But you also know the engineer is keeping up with the tasks they have planned. In most situations, my recommendation is to not interfere and allow the person to pick their own things. It creates a sense of ownership and motivation.

It becomes problematic, when the individual starts delivering sloppy work. Either on the tasks that are assigned to them, or the side work they are doing. There can be many reasons why this is happening, included:

  1. They have too much on their hands.
  2. They are more focused on the side work and dropping the ball on the planned work.
  3. Something orthogonal is happening in their lives that is impacting their job.
  4. They are burned out.

When 1) happens, you should explain why the planned work has a higher business impact. If they disagree, listen. Understand their side, but don’t be afraid to challenge their assumptions. But you can do more than that. You can help carve some time so they can also work on things they value. For example, 10% of their time could be dedicated to that.

The 2) is a tricky situation. You don’t want to cut their enthusiasm, but you also want to make sure things are done properly. First analyse why things are being delivered with poor quality. There could be a variety of reasons why this is happening. There could also be external factors that you haven’t considered. I would then have a conversation if it happens again. As usual, for critical conversations, don’t have it in writing. Have it through a F2F or video call. I can’t emphasise this enough: you need to understand their point of view, before making your own conclusions and taking any decision. There are usually three outcomes out of this. Your report will stop working on side tasks and re-focus on the planned work. Your report will continue doing what they are doing - which means no action was taken. The engineer will change something about their approach and pay more attention. The really difficult thing is how to preserve both the level of trust and the enthusiasm. No book on the topic can help you on this. Personal experience tramples everything.

Both 3) and 4) should be handled during your regular 1:1s. This is a time for understanding and accommodations.