Is this a question you keep asking yourself from time to time? Are you wondering why you can’t meet your sprint goals? Does pleasing your stakeholders feel like a quimera? It could also be that your developers are having lots of different thoughts about how to get things done and endless discussions, which leads to no productivity at all…
If this describes some of your days, do not worry: you are not alone. We have all been there. Some have survived, some decided to open a coffee shop and save their mental health from this mess altogether. There is light at the end of the tunnel, though. There is a chance, a hope for delivery. The road is long and full of speed bumps. Yet, with the right tools, it can be a nice trip to the candy shop.
I worked with different companies in different industries over the years. My conclusion is: software development is only a very tiny piece of the puzzle. Software does not deliver itself. It is delivered through the intense work of people. This article is a summary of my approach to help organisations deliver.
Every organisation is different. Different background stories, unique personalities, and challenges around it. I am not going stereotypical and say: “There is no one solution that fits all!”. How lame would that be? Still, an understanding of what is going on is important. When you come to conclusions and simply for the sake of solving some minor issue, you can easily sacrifice a lot. What I usually do first is build an understanding of the business and its people.
For new managers, my biggest advice is to always observe first and only then act. Not vice-versa. This brings me to my second point…
I could have used the word “Alignment” here as well. But I find it boring. It is a buzzword. Everyone can easily say that the alignment is bad and they need more meetings! My goodness, exactly what we need. In my experience, delivery is not just about alignment. Of course, it is a part of it, but not the full story.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not undermining alignment. I find it really important and care a lot about aligning before the actual work. What I try to mean is, we, as all human beings, tend to understand things from our own perspective. Therefore even before alignment, we need to be somehow synced. Do people have more or less the same visions? Are conflicting parties understanding where each other is coming from? Are ideas shared freely? If you want to align with people, you have to make sure you understand them as well, so they commit.
We work with people. Software development is the easiest part of the puzzle. That is why we don’t align with the software – we do it with the people. However, in order to align, similar perspectives need to be in place. Maybe coming from different angles, but still similar thoughts have to be present. In those situations, you may need someone to make the effort to understand what people think. What are they concerned about or what makes them tick? Why are they so aggressive about certain things or why do they hesitate to talk? Simply trying to align people for the sake of aligning them without understanding their needs won’t work. People like to be seen and heard. After their needs are met, it becomes easier to understand each other (Maslow anyone?).
What is your mission? What kind of people do you like to work with? Your strengths? Do you like to be challenged? Do you like to be deep down into issues or do you like to delegate them? Is there someone in the organisation that you seek guidance from? Huh, too many questions. “I thought understanding was already enough! What is this knowing now?”. Fair question. The difference between understanding and knowing is this: with understanding the big picture is there but it is fuzzy, knowing requires certain facts.
Yes, you can act with understanding people. That act will come from your own thoughts. My meaning is: you understood them and now when you act, you will act with your own understanding. The caveat here is that this is YOUR understanding, filtered by your point of view (bias!), it is not embedded in knowing the facts and reasons behind the situation. Hence you understood what happened, but not why it happened. Yeah, this sounds more like empathy. I am not just talking about emotions. I am talking about the way we act. This is a very deep topic, but I need to keep it short. Overall, be careful when you are making statements, because it may only be reflecting your mind and not the others. Once you think you understand the people, gather your facts and get to know why they act the way they are acting. This way, you can always have their piece of mind with you all the time.
Organisations like to be ambitious. Therefore multiple goals are set at once. Some are very big, some are completely unrelated to one another, you know the drill. Yes, you can be agile or even use OKRs. Good for you. Still, if you happen to miss the bigger picture and cannot connect the dots, the effort you and your teams put into achieving those goals will be for nothing.
Every organisation has a product roadmap or at least something similar. Call it an initiative list or milestones planning etc. etc. Those lists go on and on. Endless requests and discussions about what is important. Does this sound familiar?
I am not saying you need to know every little detail about what is going on. But you need to be aware of how they are connected. Are they serving the same goal? Or is it more likely that they are just sidetracking you?
Because this is not something that will only affect you. It is like the butterfly effect. For example, you take one simple customer request as a favor that was not in the plans. You change tech teams architecture, you change the product roadmap. You risk your relationship with the customer in case that request goes south. It becomes a huge snowball that keeps growing and it does not even match your plans. All for what? As simple and naive as it may seem, those small things tend to become bigger and shifts you away from common goals.
Avoiding this will become a crucial skill in working with both management and teams. You have to be able to explain to your people why certain tasks need to be done, and you need to be able to discuss with your management why certain tasks should not be done or at least should be postponed.
I am not advising to “Say NO to everything first. Everybody loves a NO becoming a YES.” While this is true, you can only pull this trick a few times. Having arguments in hand and being able to explain the “yes” and “no” is an important skill that will make you a very convincing person.
If you read this far, I would expect (pun intended) it to be already clear that you understand what I mean by this. Fool yourself not. The reason is, expectations are set in our own minds and not directly correlated with what the other person perceives about what we are communicating. Let me elaborate.
As human beings, we act with the information we have. Therefore we rely a lot on our own beliefs and tend to make assumptions about people, life, work. Especially with people: What they are capable of, what they can do and can not. Thus, we set our expectations on them, on their capabilities. There is no 100% guarantee that those expectations are well understood or can be carried on exactly the way we want them to.
I am not saying “Don’t set any expectations”. Of course not. That would be crazy. What I am saying is, your expectations should not become orders. Orders that do not involve you helping. Expectations are commitments from both sides. The communication should happen like this:
I count on your skills and ability to be able to carry on such tasks. Therefore at the end of X, I would like to be able to see results like this and that. I don’t want to define the way you should be doing it, as it is your freedom to choose the way you want to handle it. Still, you need to be careful with certain considerations of mine. Whenever you need help, I am here to assist and help.
What happens instead is:
These are your goals, now make them happen. But be careful, you have to read my mind first. If you don’t do them the way I want you to do them, I plan to be frustrated and take it out on you.
Frustrations demotivate people, in a very slow way. It builds up and over time causes big bursts. Be careful. Listen, understand, get to know your people, and be clear.
Okay, there are two possible ways to interpret this sentence: A: You did every step so far and think that people will like you. -> Sorry, that is not the truth. B: You were doing what everyone was asking you to do and therefore you think they like you. -> Still very wrong.
Let me put it to you right away: You are not pizza, you can not make everyone happy.
A working place is not a playground where everyone is having fun. Let’s face it, even in a playground, not everyone is having fun. Your goal should not be to make everyone have fun. Just ask yourself: do you wake up every morning with great energy?
You cannot make every desire come true, you cannot raise everyone’s salary, you cannot say “yes” to every request. What you can do is learn how to manage all those requests. If you don’t, you will be consumed by them. I admit, learning this takes lots of patience, time, and other stuff. Nevertheless, eventually, you will get there. Never 100% as it is a never-ending learning process. So, don’t focus on people trying to like you. Focus on helping people achieve their goals. While personal happiness is important, it is not as stable as job satisfaction. Make sure your people are challenged enough. They may not like you much, but as long as they are feeling satisfied with their job, it should not be a problem.
There you have it, lads. It has been a long article. Yet, it is not the full story. If you want to learn more or think you want to work with me, I am one email away.