The yes/no e-mail and the rubber duck

I recently read an article about delegation of work and this gave me an idea of the yes/no e-mail and the rubber duck.

What is this article about

This article is about the delegation of work. When you manage a team you could get lots of e-mails from people asking all sorts of questions for you to figure out.

Mostly those questions are along the line of “What do I need to do?” This article describes that situation and how you could handle it in a more efficient way for both you and the employees.

What is the problem

The problem is that at some point you end up with a ton of e-mails, asking you the what-to-do question, and this can consume a considerable amount of time.

There is nothing wrong with those kinds of e-mails but I like to work efficiently and try to avoid them. Some questions may take 15 minutes, but some could take up to an hour and that’s where it becomes a problem.

At that point, you’re no longer managing but you’re doing all the work which in turn does not benefit the rest of the people who you should manage.

What do you know? You’re not a manager

That’s correct, I’m not a manager, I’m a database administrator. I have managed junior database administrators in the past and that’s where I started to get experience with management.

I too would receive the what-to-do questions and dive into them explaining everything which lead me to abandon my work getting into trouble with my deadlines.

The junior DBAs would also come into my office asking all sorts of things without explaining the details, which you may understand, when you get disturbed it takes some time to get back to whatever you were doing. From that moment on I spent time improving myself to make sure things ran smoothly. So I do have some experience in that field.

How did I solve this problem

The yes/no e-mail

There are days when I would get a ton of e-mails with all sorts of questions about how to solve certain scenarios. I would get a question with something like this from one of the DBAs

I noticed in the monitoring that one of the data disks only has 15% disk space left. What should we do?

This is not a complex question but it would take me some time to investigate the disk, and talk to the SAN admin (if there is one) and this would probably take about an hour of my time. Instead, the DBA could have done this

I noticed in the monitoring that one of the data disks only has 15% disk space left. I looked at the databases which caused the growth and there wasn’t anything special going on. A normal growth event happened because the data file was full. I talked to the SAN admin to see if we can increase the disk space and he says he/she says that we add another 500GB to the 1TB disk. Would that be a good idea?

Do you see the difference? Instead of asking what to do, the DBA went out of his way and learned something there.

He/she investigated the problem and came up with a solution. Whether or not I agree with it is up to me, but now I can just reply with a YES or a NO, be it with some explanation, and do not have to spend lots of time on it.

Do not get me wrong, In some situations, this will not work. If you have employees that do not have enough knowledge and/or privileges to do things this will be harder to do. It will take some time to adjust to the new way of communication, but in the end, it will be worth it.

This approach does enable the employee to grow. It gives the person more responsibility and makes their work more efficient. It saves time for both the manager and the employee which makes it a win-win situation.

Even if the solution provided by the employee wasn’t the right one, I would not shoot it down. I would praise him/her for their effort and make this a teachable moment.

The rubber duck

This is another method I used which was normally used for people coming to your desk to ask a question.

The rubber duck you say, what does that do?

The rubber duck was a rubber duck on my desk which acted as a symbol. Whenever one of the DBAs would come and ask a question I would point them to the rubber duck. He/she would explain the problem in such detail that even the rubber duck would understand.

What did that do with the person asking the question?

What happened was that the person was forced to explain the problem in that everybody would understand it. In about 90% of the situations, the answer would be clear to them, and didn’t need me to answer it.

This worked so well that at some point they would enter my office, look at the duck and leave, already having figured out what to do. Remember, I never turned them away, I only asked them to provide enough information to let anyone understand the problem. There was never a feeling they couldn’t ask me anything and that’s important.


The methods described above can:

  • increase productivity
  • let the department work more efficient
  • help give responsibility
  • let employees be more responsible for their work

I hope this gave you some ideas, it surely worked for me.