PM Clinic: Week 13 Summary

Topic: New vs. Experienced managers

Compiled: 1/30/2005

The Situation:

"I just joined a new team as a Program Manager (Microsoft terminology for a project manager who is expected to lead, and be involved in most things). The overall team is large (~150 people) with a very experienced PM (program management) team. The PM team does an awesome job understanding the business requirements, market conditions and working with customers. Unfortunately internal engineering process and project management are not given as much attention. Feature specs often come in long after coding has begun, we don't have clear milestone exit criteria and we never really know whether we're going to hit a milestone successfully.

Strong project management and a focus on fundamentals would do wonders for this team, but no-one seems to have the time to improve the situation. I'm just a junior PM, how can I go about improving the situation without becoming a full time project team manager myself and without offending some of the more senior members of the PM team?"

- To help or not to help, Redmond WA


150 people is a *big* team. Recognize that change happens differently at different scales. If you recognize you're new, or inexperienced, don't worry about the larger team as a whole. Start local.

Neil recommended starting with your manager at your next 1 on 1 meeting. Ask questions. Ask why things are how they are and how they got to be that way. Find out what your own manager's opinions are about this matter before you dig in too far: do they see the problem too? Have they tried before and have given up? Or do they think everything is wonderful and amazing? Consider what kind of ally you have (or don't have) in influencing the team in your own manager. If things aren't so good, repeat the same investigation with your peers or other people in the organization you have access to. Then measure the resources you have, and work with that level of scope. If just you and your programmer and tester are interested, then that's where you focus your energy. There's no reason your little area of focus can't write better specs, or work with better process.

- The Gareth method(tm) goes further:

  1. Define focus: Prioritize the problems and pick the top one or two. Punt the rest for now.
  2. Find champions and supporters: Know who is behind you, and will invest time.
  3. Admit you might be wrong. Realize that you are not god, and that there may be good reasons other people don't care about what you're trying to do, or that your focus isn't the best focus for the team.
  4. Don't forget what's working: If you only talk about what's wrong, people will stop listening. You score points with veterans and respected people if you're openly aware of both what's going well and what's not going well.
  5. Try again later. Your timing might be off - People might not be ready for change. Try again in a few weeks, or approach the problem in a different way. Don't give up just because it didn't work the first time.

Watch out for Team Mediocrity. A few folks mentioned that not every team strives to be great. Most human beings are pretty happy when they don't suck at something. Being mediocre might be enough for your team leaders. So if you keep pushing for more but never get it, it could be because your goals and the goals of the people on your team are mismatched. Know this the next time you look for a new job: you might be happier in an environment of high achievers.

Stellman pointed out that there are many organizational issues that will protect the status quo - change in large organizations involve politics and interpersonal relationships, and any attempt at change, no matter how brilliant or well conceived, can only succeed if the champion for change knows how to be effective politically and socially. It can be a major undertaking, and one that few engineers or project managers have both the skills and desires to pull off.

Political primer: Who stands to gain/lose from change? Who has enough power to make change happen? What are the leaders worried about? Which leaders get along best with which other leaders? Answering these questions will help define possible pathways for change.

Smart leaders realize there is a window of opportunity when new people come to an organization. Kremer wisely pointed out that over time his own sensitivity and objectivity about problems fades over time. A smart manager will make use of this window, and call on new people to voice their opinions and observations. A common assignment I've given new hires is "what are 5 things we do as a team that make sense to you" and "what are 5 things we do as a team that don't make sense to you". The conversations that ensue are always interesting, and pave the way for understanding how we both (manager and report) think about how work should be done. The tip to managers is that people are only new to your team once: if you don't capitalize on it, it's your loss.




Neil Enns, Gareth Howell, Andrew Stellman, J Kremer, Scott Berkun (editor dude)




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