Ok, let’s talk about focus.

I learned a parenting hack a few weeks ago. One that really helped me to smoothen some previously tense or potentially tense situations. Whenever I need my toddlers to do something – like put on clothes, brush teeth, some part of the routine, and they’d be opposed to it (which is not crazy rare), I started saying something. That something is: “ok, we’ll do $something_fun soon, but the very next thing we’ll quickly do is X”. For some reason, that connects super well to their brains, and it’s remarkable to be reminded of something super important: focus. We’re focusing on a distant goal, while being clear that also the tangible, short-term actions have to be taken.

There’s probably a list somewhere that contains 20 signs that you’ve been doing engineering leadership for way too long, and finding analogies for everyday challenges in absolutely normal situations probably ranks highly there. But now that we’re here, let’s focus on focus a bit more.

Of all the things that feel like a magic trick in my professional life, answering to a group or an individual the question “what’s the most important thing for you to be working on” is my number one. Dysfunctional groups aren’t dysfunctional because it’s a ton of fun to be in a dysfunctional group (it’s not), it’s usually happening because people passionately and with dedication pursue different, and in a good number of cases, incompatible goals. The problem in those cases is not how software is built, or how the rituals are organised, it’s that the most important question has not been asked or answered: What is the most important thing to focus on.

Teams are remarkably adaptable, at least if there is some healthy fabric that keeps the substance alive. I stopped counting the situations in which this ounce of clarity transformed a hopelessly lost group into a delivering powerhouse. And make no mistake, there’s something self-sustaining there. The moment a group recognises that it is able to make progress towards that mythical most important thing, the faster they sometimes get. There’s joy in recognising that you’re having an effect, and that actions lead to tangible outcomes. It’s common sense that’s wildly uncommon, unfortunately.

There’s a place for ambiguity, for dealing with situations where there’s no clear guidelines on how to make the best decision or how to move forward. Doing two things because you can’t decide for one is probably the worst thing you can do. Just decide, switch on that laser beam and focus on getting the next thing out of the door.

This is, of course, a simplification of the real world. Most teams face a perpetual dilemma of having to work on the technical foundations, spending time on incidents, rituals and also finding space to do some actual feature development. This is where engineering management needs to provide the space to focus on what’s really relevant, while not focusing on a bunch of interesting stuff that’s of little value. If we know what the most important thing is, everything else is just

Not that important.