Why it's sometimes helpful to be inflexible

In a previous position as a PM, my team's designer left for another company. His departure was unexpected and problematic. The team already had too little design capacity before, and now we had none. This worried my team and my manager. To put them at ease I said: "Don't worry, I will cover the gap to keep the team going."

While it's great to be flexible, this is how I learned that it's sometimes helpful to be inflexible instead.


Bending into an unnatural shape

When I covered for the designer I did so with the best intentions. I felt responsible for the smooth sailing of my team. I made an effort to find work that was light in design and even did some UI work.

This worked to an extent. The team kept running, but I was also stretching myself thin and bending into an unnatural shape.

Bending into an unnatural shape to fill the gaps

Filling this gap also removed the urgency to solve the problem permanently. In this organization, it was explicitly not my role to do recruitment. so I decided to raise the importance of finding a new designer. But nothing really happened.

Like in any growing organization, it was busy. There was always a good reason to postpone to next month. After what seemed like a stressful eternity I had an epiphany: By expanding the scope of my work, I wasn't helping myself or the team. Instead of doing 1 job great, I was doing 2 jobs half-assed. Not only was this bad for the team's performance, but by filling in I deprived the organization of seeing the urgency of the matter. I was saying we needed a designer, but I wasn't showing it.

Based on this realization, I decided to stop the extra legwork. I became inflexible. What happened? The team screeched to a halt. Github commit streaks were broken. Tickets took naps in their Kanban columns.

It became obvious and urgent that we needed a designer. This woke up the organization and within a magically short few weeks, a new designer joined the team.

Note: In hindsight, I could have claimed a more proactive role in recruitment myself, but there were good reasons why our design leadership wanted to lead this process.


It's sometimes helpful to be inflexible

People generally want to do good. It's natural to want to help and (temporarily) grow the scope of your job to fill in, and this is a good thing. Teams need people that feel responsible and that can adapt. This is especially important in fast-growing organizations where new gaps appear more often.

The problem is that in covering the gaps (even though the intent is temporary) we not only bend ourselves into unnatural shapes, but we remove the incentive to solve them structurally. It becomes less urgent. So while being flexible is great, it's sometimes helpful to be inflexible instead.