I have an idea that keeps haunting me now and then. To take a break from my current role (a leader of 60+ engineering unit) & go for a temporal (1 month?) contract assignment as an individual contributor - front-line software engineer.
What has inspired such an idea? No, it's not about any kind of burn-out. Or because I'm fed up with my current work environment/role - quite the opposite.
Have you heard about the idea of management by walking around (MBWA)? It has originated in Toyota's Kaizen culture - when Taiichi Ono has found out that to bring meaningful improvements, one has to be exposed to the three following factors:
- "genba" (place, of work)
- "genbutsu" (subject, of work)
- "genjitsu" (facts = real-life data, about work)
In other words - to make sure you can express a valuable, relevant, applicable opinion about something, you can not drift too far apart from where the actual work is being done.
Why so? The context is king - our imagination about an issue cannot be based solely on our past experience and other people's reports/opinions: our past contexts may differ too much & observations of others may be biased. It's good to have an occasional "reality check" - an opportunity to confront our view with actual reality.
Wouldn't it be a mistake ...
- ... because it'd be a waste for the organization (I'd presumably deliver less value than I could as a CTO)?
- ... because I could lose respect if other engineers find me rusty or even lacking skill?
- ... because "more important" work would inevitably grab my attention back to my primary duties every day?
Maybe. Maybe all these would happen.
I could easily find ten or so reasons why NOT to do that - there will always be a sensible justification for why managers should stick to managing, etc. But I believe the longer a leader (of any kind) stays out of his mates' craft, the more his/her "professional credibility debt" grows - it's very easy to end up in an ivory tower, wholly detached from the "mundane" reality. I can't help the feeling that the higher the tower, the harder it is to help people with their front-line concerns & challenges.