Managers need to play interference in order for their engineers to stay focused and show results. Someone who is good at this will know when to give their team information and when to shelf the information for later or sometimes not at all. But it's not just about filtering information. When issues or requests come up from peer teams, management above you, or random people on email distribution lists, it's the job of the manager to know when to push back, solve the problems themselves, or call on team members to help out. If you are always calling on team members to help solve these problems, then you truly aren't playing interference. You need to decide what problems you can solve or which ones may not even need solved. This allows the team to stay on task and not get randomized. Constant changes in priorities, drama between team members, or new philosophical thinking across teams can cause randomization that is sometimes difficult for a manager to shelter from their team. So for a manager, this needs to be your constant focus. The better you get at playing interference at the correct times, the happier your team will be.
Although as a manager this is a constant focus area, ironically most of your team members won't even notice that you are doing this. That is a sign that you are doing this well. Your team members will notice how well you do this once you go on vacation or leave the team. In previous teams that I have managed, I found that at least one person leaves my team if I take time off for too long. I took a 5 month maternity leave for both of my children and key leaders on my team left the team before I returned because after a few months of dealing with all the randomness that they typically were sheltered from, they ended up thinking that they no longer liked the team or the role they had. Of course, once I returned, they would have gone back to their normal role, but 5 months can seem like a long time. One time this even happened after one month of vacation which was an indication of how much randomization was truly going on around the team or how well I was sheltering them.
Playing interference doesn't just occur between a manager and an individual contributor, it occurs between every level of management. At one point, my boss took a 2 week vacation which turned into a 4 week vacation. During that time, many of my peers also took time off. So I was left with doing multiple manager duties as well as playing interference from requests and information coming from level way above me in the organization. Although it was a great learning experience and quite shocking in some cases to hear the requests, it was probably equivalent to drinking from a fire hose (although I've never actually done that). I had a great appreciation for how much interference my boss had played and how well he had sheltered his managers like me from some of the randomness.
Sometimes there's no way to stop the team from being randomized. This typically happens when you are a new manager of a team. You don't yet have enough information to solve issues or answer questions on your own and you don't yet know the others who are giving you information and requests to understand the best way to respond. You should aim for targeted interference. You don't need to randomize the whole team, but potentially there are some key people on the team that you need to rely on for these random requests as you come up to speed. If you can identify a few key people like this, you can spread these requests across a few people so not just one person is overwhelmed. And then when you are up-to-speed and able to play interference, determine which requests should still continue going to others, maybe the leaders in the team, to give them opportunities to grow. Here are some ways to get better at playing interference:
Understand the communication channels for your team and where most requests are coming from - then make sure you are involved. This could be an alias, meeting, etc. Understand who the key players are that are making requests so that you can evaluate them and their priority correctly. If you are new to managing a team, you won't get this right the first time - trust me. 🙂
Ask questions so you can come to your own conclusions about whether a new request needs the team's attention or whether new information is important enough to communicate to the team. Gain as much clarity as possible before involving your team, but balance this carefully since some requests need to be announced earlier in the definition stage than others.
Prioritize the key initiatives that your team is working on so you can get any new requests into the priority list at the correct spot. If a new request falls closer to the bottom of the list, then this is a great opportunity to decline the request. And you just successfully played interference.
Watch out for timing of the communication to your team. Many times a request is ambiguous and the discussion may continue for weeks before the right people are giving the right information for your team to take action. You may want to give your team a heads-up if you think the request will turn into real work, but you don't have to. Until you are sure, continue to wait and drive for definition. Be patience and let your team know about the request once you are certain they will need to take action and when they have time available to act on it.
Be confident in your strategy about playing interference. What I mean is “strategize”. Whether or not requests or information make it to your team should depend on what the next few steps or outcomes will be by you divulging that information. If it helps drive the team in the right direction then your actions will be different in how and when the team gets notified then if the information disrupts or demotivates the team.
There is no set way to play interference, but being aware as a manager that you need to focus on this should help you to get better at it. Keep evaluating what is going on within your team and outside of it. You may find that your ability to give more information or pushback on requests needs to improve to make your team a healthier place to work.