Wow – this week has been a real rollercoaster. So many delivery issues! One of the many things I didn’t realise I was going to need to do as a product manager was project and delivery manage all the product workstreams in all their varying degrees of progress. At this point, I’m not sure whether that was just some kind of naive assumption, or whether as PM some of this stuff genuinely isn’t my responsibility and should instead be delegated or outsourced in some way.

As things stand though, it is at least to some extent my responsibility to make sure things get delivered when we speculated they would, so dealing with the fallout when they don’t comes with the territory. Of course, there’s always a story behind why things aren’t getting delivered to plan. And, as the late, great Jerry Weinberg would say – “it’s always a people problem.”

It would be easy for me to look at the various other people involved in the processes and decision making for our various delivery streams; and to be sure, there are lessons to be learned by those people. But I can’t control how other people behave or respond to circumstances; at least not directly. So it’s probably wiser to look at myself, and figure out how I can think or behave better to ensure similar issues don’t arise in the future.

There were two key issues on this occasion for two separate work streams: one of them is a personnel issue, and the other is a process issue.

Personnel Problems

The personnel issue has been going on for some time, and I had a kind of false positive on what the root cause might be shortly after my return from the Christmas break… I recalled that I had experienced similar issues in the past, when interacting with somebody remotely (i.e. on the other side of the world) from a culture that I eventually realised had very different values to my own.

While considering this challenge, I discovered this article on cultural awareness and specifically the Hofstede-Insights web application which can be used to compare different cultures and see where the differences lie across some specific dimensions.

Using this tool certainly did highlight some major differences between my UK cultural values and the other culture in question. Some of those insights are no-doubt profound and useful, but the concept overall was a bit of a rabbit-hole. The behavioural issues I was experiencing weren’t cultural in nature. They were professional. And in the end, needed to be escalated and dealt with accordingly.

If there’s one thing I’ll take away from the experience, it’s kind of a blueprint for recognising problem behaviours that are going to need to be addressed. Sooner, rather than later – since on this occasion the problems had been going on for several months – which served to exacerbate the consequences of those behaviours much more than might otherwise have been the case.

Did I just Get Promoted?

It also transpires that I am now a line manager. I’ve never been a line manager before; I was always more of an individual contributor. I have no particular issues with managing by influence, which is what I’ve been used to doing in the past… But it seems to me that line management requires a somewhat different skillset. So, I guess I’ll be brushing up on that. I have a copy of Managing Humans which is supposed to be good, so I’ll give that a try. Any additional book recommendations are welcomed in the comments section though!

Process Issues

Writing this diary is going to be a constant challenge since I have to be super careful about what information I can put in here. Writing about the specifics of our processes and how we work is a bit of a no-go area: As a public company, how we design, build and deliver our products is a competitive advantage, so I can’t go into very much detail. What I feel like I can say though, is that as a team we have been following a process that up to this point has worked for us. And that was fine, until it stopped working. Clearly at which point, you need to re-evaluate the situation and determine where the blockage or bottleneck is – precisely, and how you’re going to go about fixing whatever the problem actually is.

In true agile fashion, what we’ll probably end up doing is carrying out some kind of experiment to figure out whether a new or adjusted approach works for us instead. The trouble is, that’s kind of how we got into our current process issue in the first place. We tried something out, and it seemed to work. Until it didn’t.

I guess there’s no easy answer. We just have to keep experimenting and then iterating on those experiments until we find a process that does work, for us, at a point in time. And then pivot if and when it stops working. It seems like a helluva messy and potentially expensive way of going about things though. It would be nice if there were just some best practices we could follow. But – as the context driven folk would say, “there are no best practices. Only best practices in context.”

We need to find the best practices for us, in our context. And really, we’re just at the beginning of our journey – so it may take some time. Hopefully, I’ll enjoy the ride anyway!

Thanks for reading. Feel free to reach out via a comment or on the socials if anything resonates.

Cheers,
Simon

3 Comments

  • Robert Day says:

    In my twenty years as a trade union rep in the civil service, I saw lots of instances where problems were caused by management giving people with a lot of top-end professional skills line management responsibilities that they knew very little about. The problem often was that they never took the trouble to find out what those responsibilities really were, so just by acknowledging the gap in your skills set you’re already ahead of the curve.

    (Eventually, after about fifteen years management finally decided that they should send new line managers on some sort of training course, and things began to improve – except for the case I ended up taking to Tribunal of someone who had been tasked with managing a particular mailbox to keep it clear of spam being accused of reading the messages in that mailbox and so breaching confidentiality. Instead of initially asking the employee how they were doing the job – because the line manager had no idea what the task actually entailed – and sitting in on a work session to understand the task, the line manager escalated the accusation to senior management who immediately suspended the individual concerned pending a full disciplinary process which was seriously flawed and which was fairly clearly aimed at ending in dismissal. I even found that the line manager had removed the laptop that this person had used – legitimately – to monitor the mailbox and returned it to the office laptop pool, wiping the hard disk as a first step and so destroying evidence) (as another colleague whose previous role had been as a forensic IT expert for the Greater Manchester Police Force took particular delight in pointing out).

    Eventually, we won (though most victories of this sort are usually fairly phyrric).

    The best source on what a line manager should not do is the Industrial Law Journal, which your HR department should be seeing on a regular basis if they have any intention of surviving legal challenge at any point. Try to get on the circulation list; otherwise, their home page at least gives you some recent titles which might give you pointers towards current issues – https://academic.oup.com/ilj

    • Simon Knight says:

      Robert – thanks for stopping by and for the encouragement. I’ll take a gander at the Industrial Law Journal, but our legal situation is no-doubt vastly complicated by the number of geographies in which the team/organisation works.

      If nothing else, the Line Manager role is giving me a somewhat different perspective on my responsibilities; not just towards subordinates, but to the company as a whole. I feel more empowered to take a longer term view of where I want things to be, rather than just making do with what we’ve got – which has got to be a good thing.

  • Robert Day says:

    It’s a reasonable rule of thumb to say that if something is legal under UK employment law, it’s unlikely to be illegal elsewhere and may even be considered an example of best practice. (Given that so much UK employment law is currently based on EU law, then that may equally apply in some other jurisdictions, though of course that is likely to change in the coming years. And just because something is law, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is uniformly applied or enforced in any jurisdiction, here or overseas.)

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