Scaffolding change

If you’re a New Yorker, you may be forgiven for thinking scaffolding is meant to be permanent. Across the five boroughs, scaffolding often goes up and then stays there, with nothing happening but the slow, steady decay of a building’s facade. Elsewhere, most people will recognize scaffolding for what it’s intended to be: a temporary structure designed to permit access, support, and repair. Scaffolds create safe conditions under which some change can be attended to, without anyone on the street below needing to watch out for falling debris.

One of the questions I often return to with my clients is: what kind of scaffolding do you need to make this change? Maybe they are trying to delegate work to an emerging leader, in order to build more space for new projects or areas they need to tackle themselves. Maybe they are trying to do something for the first time, and want to protect against the inevitable missteps they will make along the way. Or perhaps they are preparing for a big transition in their career, and need some assurance they won’t fall from a great height and land in the traffic below.

A good scaffold has a few characteristics: it creates a condition of safety, both physical and psychological, such that people can be confident that a misstep won’t bring harm upon themselves or others. It provides access to areas that might, under normal conditions, be difficult to reach. And it creates both space and time to undertake some change, whether that change is repair and restoration, or a transformation into something new.

How might this work in practice? Let’s say one of your direct reports is taking on a new project, and you want to build up some scaffolding to support them. In order to create safety, you might first assure them that you expect them to collect some lessons along the way and that you are looking forward to learning alongside them. (I like to reference adrienne maree brown’s never a failure, always a lesson here.) You might also discuss strategies for de-risking the project: likely, that means starting small, and then testing and iterating. Together, you could establish a hypothesis to start with, or discuss the right audience to test with.

Next, you might think about what kinds of access they need: maybe it’s to you, in that you have experience with this kind of project and can share your own lessons. Or perhaps it’s to another senior member of the organization, who has important context they could benefit from. Maybe it involves introductions to people outside the org, or access to spaces or systems they aren’t already in (such as, say, exclusive Slack channels or business data). You may also consider how access to peers with either similar or adjacent experience can be valuable, and then work to set expectations with those peers about how they can be supportive.

With safety and access taken care of, you need to give the gift of space and time. Doing something for the first time often means doing it slowly and carefully, and with a level of attention and focus that requires a lot of effort to sustain. That means other activities will have fewer resources to draw from, both in the form of hours in the day and in the form of focus. Creating that space and time may mean reducing or deferring other responsibilities, or passing some tasks off to someone else. It also means that you may want to seriously consider the timing of taking on something new: if your direct report has a parallel project that’s running hot (because it’s especially critical to the business, say, or it’s taking longer than planned), you want to be careful about trying to scaffold a new effort at the same time. Even if your report could find the hours, they may find they are still short on attention.

(Note that this doesn’t mean a new project has to wait for a perfectly calm period to proceed; it does mean you want to talk together about how to reduce the temperature of other work so that learning isn’t forever relegated to later.)

I’ve described here the process of creating scaffolding for a direct report, as this is something managers have an obligation to do for their teams. But this could just as easily be applied in a peer relationship, or even in the context of creating structure for yourself. What might you do to create a condition of safety for a peer when they’re doing something new? Maybe you can make yourself available as a sounding board, or offer to take some task off their plate to give them more space. Likewise, when building scaffolding for yourself, you might ask for a gut check from a trusted colleague, or design a small experiment to start with, or check if someone has time to give you a walkthrough on a part of the code base with which you’re unfamiliar.

Scaffolding can also come from outside the workplace. This is especially true if you’re trying to make a change that encompasses more than your current role. Perhaps you have ambitions to start your own company some day, or to move from your current field into another. Scaffolding in those circumstances might look like assurances of safety from friends and family that they trust you to make a big change, as well as explicit offers of support. Or it could mean reaching out to former colleagues who may have insights about the field you want to move in to. Think about how you can both ask for scaffolding from people you know, and also how you might offer it to them, when they find themselves in need.

Finally—because you are not one of the boroughs of our greatest city—at some point, the scaffolding has to come down. Maybe not all at once, but it shouldn’t stay up forever. Make a point of calling out what you’re using as scaffolding and checking in about when it’s time to withdraw it. At some point, tasks become familiar and don’t need to take up as much space. Or you’ve taken several small steps and now know what direction you really want to go. Or you look back and realize that the house you were building is up, the mortar is dry, the windows are clean, and it’s time to take the scaffolding down and let the sunlight pour in.