New Leads Need to be Replaceable

September 21, 2022
Person being plucked from team

The title I wanted… “New leads will want to have a succession plan in place from day 1 because it’s so much harder to detach yourself from the project if you start thinking about it on day 500” … but it didn’t fit in the character limit, so here we are.


Replaceable 👏 does 👏 not 👏 mean 👏 fungible.

All leads should be replaceable. You should be able to take a vacation. You should be able to leave the project eventually.

It’s important that new leads to know this on Day 1 of the project, because designing your succession plan is very similar to designing your testing infrastructure. It’s so much easier to build in your testing as part of the backbone of a project, and let everything else evolve off of it, rather than have to go back in after a year’s worth of development and figure out how to start some automated testing. The later has such a high barrier to entry, that almost no one thinks it’s worth it to even tackle at that point. So for that design, the result is some gnarly legacy code. For  leading a project, you’re talking about never getting to leave. Which is… suboptimal.


#1 Take Vacation

My good friend, Charles Tippett, once gave me advice: delegate one responsibility every time I left for vacation.

It’s sneaky brilliant, because inevitably, you’ll need people to cover something while you’re out. All you have to do is not take it back when you return.

#2 Be Random

Someone was recently bragging about Bob Nowadly for offering his team 1-off opportunities to try out new responsibilities.

I love this one because it doesn’t require much long-term planning, follow-up, or training. You can pull someone aside with a quick “hey, want to facilitate retro this sprint?” and maybe set aside some time to help them prep for it, and off they go!

#3 Offer Real-Time Feedback

Robert Herbig is famous for the real-time retro for a new responsibility. The first presentation I gave, Herbig walked up to me with a few sticky notes worth of feedback and said “Hey! Want to talk about how that went?”

I’ve found it so useful to receive feedback as close to me actually trying out the new thing. It’s all fresh and you take advantage of the momentum you’ve built up.

This tip pairs well with the random opportunities tip. You can slowly build your team’s professional development one event at a time.

# 4 Tell the Team

Even if you’re intentional about making yourself replaceable, I’d wager it’s not super obvious to your team. Be transparent with them. Let them know that you’re looking for opportunities to support others, rather than wanting to do it all yourself.

I’ve found that my teammates are tentative to ask for things, because no one want’s to “step on toes” or whatever. Being explicit gives people permission to ask for the responsibilities they want.

#5 Hook the Team Up with Some Mentors

Part of the struggle with delegating is the overhead of the corresponding training. Delegating an entire role, like ScrumMaster, takes a lot of work if your teammates don’t have prior experience in that area.

BUT, it doesn’t have to be your work. SEP has a metric ton of awesome folks who are happy to help. Encourage your new <insert role here> to meet regularly with someone who can provide them some guidance on that subject. I usually offer up a list of 3 of my faves.

#6 Help Customers Talk to Your Team

You will probably never make yourself replaceable to your customer. Customer Experience is our product, more than the code. And so our customer relationships are strong, lasting ones. But you can encourage your team to form their own bonds, so that your team can support your relationships when you need to step out.

Mike Rogers is amazing at this. He’d coordinate “ride-a-longs” so I could talk to a new customer without having to make introductions completely on my own. The more customer-facing interactions I had in various mediums, the easier it was for me to jump into customer-facing opportunities without him.

How do you know when you’re done?

The Time Off Test. If I can take time off without assigning backups, I’d consider myself sufficiently replaceable.

I’m sure it’s more complicated than that but 🤷‍♀️


👋 As always, totally reach out! Let me know if you have any other tips to add.