Wash the Dishes

If you've ever worked in an office with a kitchenette, you've witnessed it. Most people are too busy to empty the dishwasher, or load it, so the dirty dishes sit in the sink. Or people are too busy to find and add the detergent, so the dirty dishes sit in the dishwasher. But the dishes do get washed--eventually. There's someone who comes by periodically and checks the situation, and then takes care of it.

Sometimes, this is just the most high-strung or passive-aggressive person in the office. And they'll make sure you hear about it. If they're not that, you probably won't hear about it. You'll just be happy to have clean dishes washed by the flatware elves overnight. With the dishwasher always ready to accept your dirty dishes, and the confidence they'll get washed, you might even be coaxed to take your dish and that glass sitting in the sink, and put them in the washer.

If you pay attention you might notice that the elves are a person. And they often happen to be a leader of some sort. Maybe it's the official or unofficial morale officer. The event planner. The recruiter of volunteers. The person who says "let's go out for lunch!" Or maybe it's the boss. Or the owner.

This is a thing that happens in teams. The dishwasher phenomenon is just the physical manifestation. The underlying pattern is that of "servant leadership." That's an interesting phrase. It can be read both ways. A servant leader is a leader who leads by serving the team's needs. Or a servant leader is a team member who, by serving the team's needs, becomes a de facto leader.

There are a host of activities that are necessary to keep a team happy, and their productivity flowing. Maintaining shared physical spaces is one. Maintaining shared digital spaces is another. Filling in and normalizing the project wiki, adding comments to obscure code incantations, removing old cruft, rounding out the test suite, or just your run-of-the-mill refactoring. These activities are what keep a project sane and functional.

As a lead, if no one is doing this stuff, it's your job to start. If you lead by example people will be a lot more willing to follow that example when asked. Maybe you'll even get lucky and some will pick up the slack on their own initiative. As a lowly team member, even if your skilled contributions are humble, you can find a place of value, impact, even respect, by getting the mess out of everyone else's way.

Do you want to make things better? Do you want to lead? Do you want to have an impact? Start with washing the dishes.