Are You An Umbrella Or A Funnel?

Recently I was chatting with my sister-in-law, who happens to be a product owner at a rapidly growing startup company. We were talking about the nature of “flow” and how important it was for people to be able to focus on doing their work without being interrupted. Partway through the conversation she had a great quote (paraphrased roughly here):

Google has a great description for the role of managers: they should be sh*t umbrellas for their team. Their most important role is to protect their team from all the sh*t that comes flying at them so they can focus on doing their job: writing code. That’s my job in a nutshell and I take it very seriously.

The best reference I could find to that term is here, where GMail product manager Todd Jackson was quoted as saying “You can either be a sh*t funnel or a sh*t umbrella.” The article goes on to describe how a good manager protects their team from unnecessary garbage, in effect being an “umbrella” to the storm of things (requests, questions, stupid meetings) that rain down on their staff. But some managers take on more of the role of being a “funnel”, in that they simply filter and then pass on the things that come at their team.

I suppose one might say, “Well at least in the case of the funnel, the people aren’t directly exposed to the onslaught of sh*t.” That’s true, but I’d counter that depending upon how the manager passes on the stuff they deal with, the end result could be the same. If at once-weekly meetings everything that’s been triaged is laid out and assigned, that’s fine, and in fact I’d argue that’s really playing the umbrella role. But, on the other hand, if the manager simply sends everything off towards their team with the convenient “FW:” tag, well then what’s the point of the filter at all?

Personally at work I’d love to have some way of shielding my team from the daily barrage of (mostly) crap work that comes our way. I still believe the idea of a “handler” and holding designated office hours would provide immediate and noticeable relief. In effect, the handler becomes the umbrella, handling the collecting and triaging of incoming requests and only interrupting the rest of the team when absolutely necessary. Hopefully we can get some buy in from management on the idea, and time will prove our strategy to be one that greatly increases our ability to get work done.

So how do you shield your team from flying sh*t? Are you a funnel, an umbrella, or some combination thereof?