Being a TPM on a project or a program that is going well is not very challenging. The team you are leading is a well oiled machine that keeps delivering features at a speed of light, delighting customers and leadership teams alike while you are just basking in the sunlight and delivering great news, while keeping the momentum going.
The unfortunate part is that it is not always the case, not even close. The teams are given very ambition stretch goals, working on deliverables of very high complexity. They are being pulled in different directions with conflicting priorities. There are dependencies on other teams, budget and resource changes. The program scope along with customers’ requirements can change. Some early design assumptions can be incorrect, requiring significant changes or refactoring. The list can go on forever and that is the bad news. The good news, however, is that here is exactly where great TPMs can shine, make a huge impact, prove themselves in the battlefield, push their careers forward while growing on professionally as well as personal level.
So what do we do if we find ourselves at the helm of ship that starts to look more like Titanic which each passing day. Here is some advice, from my own experience:
- Trust your instinct
- There are times when engineers are working hard, being hyper focused on delivering the next feature in the backlog. Unless, there is a well kept burn-down / burn-up chart, it can be difficult to assess whether or not a program is on track. But if a TPM is watching their programs’ milestones closely and has a solid understanding of their success criteria, there is a sense of the progress toward those milestones sprint over sprint. Given the historic delivery cadence of the team you will have a sense if how close the teams are to reaching those milestones. You must trust that sense or a gut feeling and start having appropriate conversations to validate your assumptions with real data from your engineering / development teams.
- Talk to your team(s)
- It’s you job to understand what is really happening. Are we really running behind and by how much? Our engineers and developers will be the source of truth for this information. The most important questions to ask is why? (The 5 Whys technique can be very helpful here) Are there resource shortages, team dependencies on other teams, or any other blockers? Was that our original estimates of the size and complexity of our milestones way off target and we discovered that the work requires much greater level of effort? Do we have a scope creep where new requirements are being added to the original success criteria of our milestones. By the way this may not be a bad thing, since it indicates we listen to our customers and taking their requirements seriously, but it also means we are much more likely to be running behind the timelines and budget we committed to originally.
- Be Transparent
- I have heard some TPM say they try to fix the problem internally first before sounding alarm to the leadership and external stakeholders and causing unnecessarily anxiety and pressure on the team. I personally disagree with this approach. One of the important aspects of why TPMs are so helpful on large and complex programs is because they serve as an important link between what’s happening on the ground and the leadership and stakeholders perception of the project or program’s health. The leadership rely on TPMs to provide this information to them. If you are not saying anything, they would assume things are going according to plan. The worst thing for someone in a customer, leadership or an executive sponsorship position is to be surprised, where all of the sudden right before the deadline the status changes to yellow or red and the program is at risk or totally off-track. You have to provide that transparency and notification as soon as possible. You may not have all of the reasons or details, but giving folks heads up that you see the program off-track or at risk, while you are investigating the root cause and working on a plan to get things back to green, is infinitely better than not saying anything at all and hoping everything will be fine before anyone notices.
- Identify your path to green and ask for help if needed.
- One of the important things to do with the team, now that we have a good idea of what the problem statement, is to get some solutions on the table.
- Is the team able to focus on the work or are they being pulled in different directions all the time and dealing with constant interrupts.
- Remember developers need to maintain a flow state of uninterrupted focus and concentration in order to write quality software at a consistent pace.
- Are we waiting on something to be delivered by another team.
- Are we lacking any expertise and training we need.
- Document and share the path to green with the leadership team (executive sponsors, stakeholders)
- When you communicate that the program is at risk or off-track the next question you’d get, in most cases, is how do we get things back on track / green.
- Be very specific about the asks from your leaders or executive sponsors. Do you need additional budget to build a test or CI/CD environment? Are you seeing developer experience issues that need to be addressed. Are there external teams who aren’t able to keep their commitments and implement the features you depend on. Make sure these asks are easy to understand, actionable, with some suggestions as to the ownership model for those asks.
- Reset Expectations if possible
- If the reason your program is running behind is due to errors in estimating the work in terms of its size and complexity or the levels of resource availability, as an example, there is no reason to keep reporting on the status based on those wrong assumptions, since it will place a level of pressure on the team, which in addition to creating anxiety and frustration, will cause features to be skipped and quality of work overall to go down without really adding any value for your teams. It is much better in those cases to adjust the goal-post to its realistic, feasible level. Remember, it is super important for these new estimates to originate from the teams doing the work and ensure there is alignment on these changes with the leadership team.
- Protect / Shield and Serve your Team(s)
- When programs or projects don’t go according to plan it create a lot of opinionated and often difficult conversations, which can be demotivating and put engineering teams on the defensive mode and lead to a lot of frustration. Most of our engineers give 100% of their best effort to get the work done. Here is where TPMs step up to shield the teams from the political pressure that may be the opposite of helpful for them. Be the face of the program. Clearly state what needs to be done to execute on the path to green. Protect your team, take ownership and responsibility for what is happening. Reset and lead the transformation effort.
- Re-evaluate the objectives, vision, be the voice of the customer.
- It often happens that we keep grinding forward to keep up with the plan we set for ourselves earlier, without taking a deeper look at why we are doing what we are doing. Are we working on the most impactful, critical things for our customers and business? Are we truly listening to our customers. It’s important to have those conversations and ask those questions. It’s possible we may decide to postpone or eliminate certain features from our backlog, while regaining focus on the things that matter the most, which in itself can get us back on track. Course correct and gain alignment when needed.
- Pay attention to the team dynamics and morale.
- When things get hard team morale can suffer. Our individual team member’s confidence, enthusiasm and creativity can be impacted. We certainly don’t want to lose strong team members in those rough patches. Listen carefully, restate the vision for why we are doing what we are doing. Celebrate small wins. Encourage and re-assure the team that you trust them, support them and believe in their ability to deliver amazing results. Help your team understand that what they are doing is highly complex, and it is expected that challenges arise but together you can use this as an opportunity to grow and learn.
- Make sure the leadership team also understands you have a strong team that can face these storms and get to the other side stronger than they were before, while delivering great product for the business and its customers.