Which Battles Do You Choose to Fight and When?

When my older daughter was in high school, we battled often about her clothing. Her school had a dress code that said girls couldn’t wear spaghetti strap tops and their shirts had to cover their backs and bellies.

I thought it was my role as her mother to fight that battle on behalf of the school. Aside from the fact I could never win that fight, this question never occurred to me:

  • Why did girls have restrictions on their clothing and boys didn’t?

As long as girls have gone to school, they’ve had dress codes. And high school girls have always challenged that dress code.

Mothers can never win that fight.

I finally learned to stop picking that clothing fight with my younger daughter. (She had also listened and probably learned from the previous battles.)

At work, I learned to manage projects with rolling-wave, deliverable-based planning. (That’s when you plan for some deliverables, not milestones, for a small number of weeks. See Create Successful Schedules: Three Tips to Rolling Wave Planning for a short introduction.)

Later, when my managers asked me to create milestones and Gantt charts, I said, “No. I’m not going to waste my time on write-once, read-never schedules.”

Yes, I fought that battle and mostly won.

I had one noticeable “failure.” A senior manager assigned someone he called a “project manager,” Tim, to my program. Tim created the Gantt Charts the manager wanted. Was it worth my time to fight against Tim’s role? No. Tim didn’t bother me. He did take some time away from the teams, but that quieted the senior manager’s concerns. Tim’s role allowed all of us to finish the work with just a few interruptions.

Yes, I placated the senior manager. Overall, it was worth it.

Here are the principles I use to decide whether to fight.

My Battle-Fighting Principles

For any battle, consider these questions:

In the case of clothing for high schoolers, the student might suffer either of these consequences: after-school detention, or being sent home from school to change. That’s supposed to deter future behavior. (That’s not my experience.)

Note that the student, not the parent, suffers the consequences. (One of the many reasons I should have let that battle go.)

And, I allowed the triangulation, instead of my daughter feeling the consequences herself. (Note: she never received a detention or was sent home from school.)

What about project practices or technical practices at work?

  • If we allow managers to dictate how we work, how fast can the managers adapt to new ways of working? How can any of us learn or experiment with different ways to work?
  • All of us suffer. The team suffers because they don’t have autonomy and they can’t learn fast. The managers suffer because they’re not taking advantage of alternatives.
  • If I placate the managers, I allow the managers to triangulate with the people doing the work. Not very congruent of me. (See Can You “Just” Anything?)

That’s why I (almost) always fight the battles for more work autonomy.

At work, we need to balance the short-term inconvenience and concerns with the long-term benefits. (We won’t always be correct with our experiments, but that’s why it’s worth choosing experiments that allow us to learn fast.)

How Can We Use These Principles Now?

I optimize for fast learning and risk management for most of my life. I often assess the short-term and long-term consequences for whom. And I want to avoid triangulating when possible.)

Right now, at the end of 2021, we have a new COVID variant. I have urged everyone I know to get the vaccine and the booster. Some people, such as my ex-hairdresser, chose not to get the vaccine. Since the consequences to all of us are more variations, I decided to choose a new hairdresser. While each of us has a different risk profile, I choose to manage my risks.

If we choose the learning, the pandemic has taught us much. We each take responsibility for our actions, as we assess the short-term and long-term consequences. I prefer if people chose to look at the societal long-term consequences, but I can’t make them do that.

I can only choose my actions. And to share how I think about the What consequences for Who. And how to avoid triangulation.

Since I have underlying conditions (vertigo and age!), I choose to prioritize my risks—and manage my actions to mitigate those risks.

I’m not fighting with anti-vaxxers anymore. Instead, I’m choosing which battles to fight and when.

That’s the question this week: Which battles do you choose to fight and when?

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