Be the Compass for Your Team

Growing up (in Sweden), we had team-based orienteering on the gym class schedule (note: this was way before Google Maps). This cumbersome activity was a frequent item on the agenda during every out-door season (which by the way was calendar based rather than weather based – yeah, gym class was hard). We learned how to read maps and use both nature and a compass to get a sense of direction. We ran in “unknown terrain” of the woods (i.e. a small forest next to the school campus). Every year, in the same forest. I can’t count how many bruises, cuts, and mud-soaked, smelly gym clothes I had to endure. But hey, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…

Senior years we had learned enough about the forest to know ahead of time approximately where the controls were placed. And of course this enabled us to optimize our strategy. Our teams divided and conquered by sending out scouts to each control separately, and then copying the stamp pattern across all our stamp cards. I’m still not sure it was cheating, as we had advanced our skills. I.e. we had learned the basics the first years, evolved to develop a distributed system over the following years, and optimized for quickest time to results to achieve the goal. Additionally we gained the bonus of hanging out out-of-sight from the goal line and discussing “much more important things” (like boys, fashion, or random emergencies in teenage lives – i.e. creating social networks) than running around in a forest.

Fast forward 10s of years. I’ve realized only a few people (these days) here in the Valley can actually read a (real) map, use a compass, and survive 72 hours in the woods (without phone or without asking “the internet”). I kind of feel proud of my high-school acquired survival skills, in comparison. But more importantly, I’ve come to appreciate other aspects of what those gym classes taught me:

  • Don’t lose hope or sense of direction, just because you’ve gotten a bit lost from your original, known path
  • Don’t fret about tiny falls or bumps on the way, instead keep on moving towards the target
  • Be attentive, listen, and look for signs to get hints about what would be a misleading shortcut vs. the best way forward. It’s not always what seems to be the easiest path that leads you to your goal.
  • Stop frequently and course direct along the way.
  • Account for misinformation from your team, but don’t put blame – you’ll be the one making the mistake next time.
  • Struggle through rough patches – as a team!
  • Have clear milestones to enable measuring achievement along the way – to see progress, but also keep team spirit up
  • The minute you realize you are off track, backtrack to the most recent known place and re-plan from there – re-assess information you acquired that took you on the wrong path!
  • Plan a path, and create optional paths A, B, and C, in case of the unknown.
  • Be open to creatively come up with plan D, in case you need to, along the way.
  • Pick people on your team with different skills, to assure success.
  • Try to be the compass for your team when the rest of the team feels lost.
  • Don’t be scared of unknown terrain – with the right tools and a team that communicates, you’ll get through.

Perhaps not all of this wisdom is purely derived from orienteering, but the metaphor helps inspire me at times and to get some perspective on project planning and execution, team management, and utilization of skills to reach a goal.

On a side note, I probably owe my old high-school gym-teacher a proper thank you for the tedious effort of motivating 20-or-so grumpy and freezing teenagers to run in a wet forest, for no obvious immediate reward. In the hindsight I do appreciate some of the endurance practiced and the inspiration to ponder decades later.

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What if there is no Roadmap?

If you ever have noticed a dip in motivation in your team this blog post might give you inspiration to try a new way of approaching change and also an idea on a new experiment to try.

THE IMPORTANCE OF POSITIVE TEAMS

No team performs well if the team spirit is low. We all know this. A team loosing its spunk might happen for a number of reasons, but I’ve found in my experience, whenever entering teams in distress or when observing the spirit dip, that the most common roots are:

  1. They feel like they are not being heard
  2. They do not agree with (or rather understand the reason to) decisions made
  3. There is a gap between what the management communicates and what the team is seeing
  4. The team does not feel respected as rational adults, the communication is perceived as “filtered” and not direct or honest

Basically the team for various reasons feels robbed of their ability to help make and help execute on the right decisions. They do not longer feel empowered to influence and contribute, and hence have lost feeling engaged!

I’ve heard and read various ways proposed of “fixing the team spirit”. Having sports coaches present on team spirit, doing team events, etc etc. But never before had I heard this problem and solution been so clearly and interestingly challenged by “systems thinking” as at a keynote at QCon London in 2014 by Emma Langman. In short these were my takeaways:

  • One employee can be a bad performer, but a whole team performing poorly is a sign of that the system is wrong
  • The system can be anything from the management team, the product direction, priorities, or processes
  • The goal of any system should really be to enable the team to successfully execute and make progress
  • The moment you no longer see progress of an entire team, you should immediately reevaluate the system instead of the team 
  • To achieve change in a team, you need a shift in the system, and above all, as a leaders, you need to recognize that you are part of the system

REAL WORLD EXPERIMENT

After this keynote I felt really inspired, so I went home to my own team to try out an experiment I came up with. Long story short, our team was just exiting a phase of firehose post-launch stress, and the team funk started to show. This is somewhat normal after any big delivery. We were a few months post GA, and suddenly there was this negative outlook, a feeling of being overwhelmed, and a lot of whining. The team was not in good spirits.

SIDENOTE// By the way, on my comment that post-launch funk is normal, a little side note to ponder: stress is handled well in our bodies by adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is meant to give you a boost, i.e. keep us alert and ready for any danger, for a short time. It also often makes us feel confidence. When the “threat” (i.e. in this modern-world scenario: meeting the deadline) goes away, the stress subsides. The body intelligently tunes back its stress hormone levels. While adrenaline makes you feel good on the up-rise, cortisol makes you feel anxious, negative, sad, etc on the down-turn. Most people feel a funk when stress leaves our bodies. Perhaps better explained here.
My tip for people like myself who sometimes forget we are biological beings that need time for decompression is to always be kind to yourselves and listen to your body over your brain. For long-term health. //END-SIDENOTE

So back to the experiment…

I asked myself what was the system that I needed to change to help the team feel positive again? Well, following the recipe of the keynote, I first had to recognize how I was part of the system. My role is part of the system because I represent the external demand, i.e. customer requirements and priorities. My role decides the roadmap which means I affect the direction and in what order to do what. So what if I could remove that demand, what would happen? What if there was no roadmap?

Let me introduce what I did: introducing the concept and process of a Focus Sprint:

  • Bring the team together in a room.
    • Team means in this context the cross-functional team. Dev, QA, Docs, Product, Support, Management tools, CCE, Field – i.e. everyone touching the product in a tech way.
  • Set the stage: “What if there is no roadmap? What would you choose to work on? In other words, what keeps you awake at night (regarding the product)?”
  • Go around the room and let people express freely their concerns and improvement wishes
    • As a product manager you can learn a lot. Listen!
    • Important: include yourself – you are part of the team!
  • When everyone has expressed their wishes and concerns, identify the “top three” themes. Go around the room and let people vote on one of these themes.
  • The theme with most votes gets selected for the sprint
  • Under the selected theme, have each and one of the members sign up for a task they want to complete within the sprint
    • Including yourself!
  • Have the whole team focus on that theme and those tasks for the entire time.

This break in the fire-hose every-day work made wonders! The focus sprint did not only deliver results better than anyone expected, and fixed some of the at the time bigger concerns of the team (so that they could “sleep better at night”). It also had the team focused and joined in a mission that help bring the team spirit back and get closer together. The funk flew out the window, and people started to be creative and innovative – together – again!

I strongly recommend focus sprints as a regular practice, at least a couple of times a year. The challenge on you as a product manager is to facilitate the timing of it and put the roadmap on hold. And to full-heartedly participate! A strong leader dares to change the system and change the assumed approach to success.

When to Change Jobs?

On occasion I get time to meet with old friends or take walks outside the office with former or current coworkers. It is wonderful to get a chance to talk about life, current events, reflect on topics in a respectful and trusted form. In a recent interaction with a friend of mine the question of when to change jobs was discussed. Here are a few thoughts and pointers based on that discussion and a few of my own experiences.

New-job Mis-fit
In the beginning of a new job everything usually feels exciting. Coworkers are curious and approachable. People should be eager to show you the ropes and have intro-meetings to get you up to speed. In some situations you need to actively seek these interactions, in other situations people seek this with you. The idea is to stay open minded and a “rookie” as long as possible, it will enable you to learn the most. Sooner or later you will exit the honeymoon phase and instead enter the phase of expectations not being met, conflicts, and people actually starting to show their real selves. This is common group psychology and normal. However, if you find yourself 6+ months into a job and still not seeing the end of the conflict phase. Perhaps you should start evaluating month by month if you honestly can’t seem to find a way to get through to people and start the really productive collaboration phase. In some cases the culture you meet in a new work place isn’t a fit for you and you need to start evaluating your options.

  1. Have you exhausted all the tools in your tool box to get ramped up as needed and to reach people?
  2. Is it an option to discuss how to reach collaboration phase with your team perhaps with your manager or someone else you trust in the organization?
  3. Have you discussed the matter with your mentor (see previous blog posts on mentorship)?
  4. Is it just the growth with the new job that feels frustrating? Do you need to acquire new skills or ways to interact with new types of people?
  5. Have you lowered your guard and admitted your weaknesses in front of other people? Sometimes that is all it takes to start a trust foundation and rebuild relationships – even in the work place. Heart to heart discussions could help solving conflicts.
  6. Have you read any books on conflict resolution, the art of listening, group psychology? Sometimes a little self-education is the best way forward.

If all of the above have been properly evaluated and vetted, and the situation still feels exhausting, draining, non-motivating, and without no hope or end, then perhaps the job you thought you signed up for actually wasn’t a fit – be it the job or the work place and culture. In some rare cases a new job just isn’t the right job, and you can choose to quit. To quit a new job quickly, once, is ok on your resume. People with experience understand that mistakes of this sort happen. However, it is easy to spot a serial quitter if too many jobs have been signed up for, but not stuck out more than 6 months. Then it turns into a reflection of if you have problems with team collaboration or people skills in general. So 1) be careful to interview any new work place just as much as they interview you, to avoid the new-job quitting scenario and 2) try to grow as a person and stick a job out longer than 6 months, unless it is directly hostile of course, if you already have done a few quick-hire-quits. And last, if you find yourself being a serial-quitter, then it is time to perhaps re-evaluate your interview style, your career choice, your skill levels, or your evaluation process of potential employers.

Drowning or Sailing
I’ve forgotten who told me, but I’m pretty sure it was one of my mentors who shared the logic about drowning on the job. The point being that if you feel like you are “drowning on the job” not able to cope with tasks or overwhelmed by the ramp up required, it is both good and bad. If you are feeling this way a total of five days a week, you can be sure you bit off more than you can chew. If you feel this way four days a week in the beginning of a new job, it is a good sign. The first part of the learning curve is the steepest. However, if you feel like you are drowning on the job four to five days a week even after a year, you are probably on a path of burning yourself out, so time to ask for help or to pull out and admit defeat. If you feel stressed to the limit and can hardly step out of bed in the morning, I would sincerely recommend either external or internal coaching, depending on who you trust and what kind of mentors, managers, and coaching you would need help from.

Two to three days of drowning per week is a good motivation rate still. However, if you only feel like you are drowning a total of one day a week, then it is time to look for your next challenge, if you really want to accelerate your career and learning or growth. You grow the most the two to three first years in a job or a workplace. You can continue to grow if you take on new assignments or more responsibility, but after a while it truly starts feeling like you’ve done and seen it all. If that is your current state, it is time to shake the ground a bit. Not necessarily change work place, but definitely job role, team, technology (area of expertise) or take an evening class on some new topic (e.g. learn how to dance tango?). You need to stimulate your brain, or else you slowly but surely will get bored. Bored is bad. In most cases bored people turn either bitter, and start creating negativity around them, and thereby start hurting the team more than helping it. Or they become unproductive restless souls int he office, wasting other people’s time. So, one-day a week drowning is a good sign, in my opinion, to start looking. No haste, but start looking.

Bad Boss or Hostile Workplace
Obviously if there is any sign of harassment, hostility, or other type of violence going on, you need to prioritize your safety and well-being above all. If you can’t get the legal help and protection you need, you need to get out of there. There will be other jobs, but there is only one of you. It is their loss to lose you, your dedication, and your unique talents. There is no reason to stay and suffer under bad circumstances or incompetent management.

Lack of Growth Path
Another reason to start looking for other options is if you see no growth path. Have you tried all roles that you are interested in? If not, plan out to learn the skills to get there. Have you considered a side-move? Explore other teams in the organization. Is there a promotion within reach in the next 2-3 years? Is there a reasonable manager to help you get to your goals? Are there classes that could be offer on the side? Plan and execute for your own growth, if you still like the company and culture.

Sometimes the role you are aiming for gets assigned to someone else. In that case you could evaluate how long it would take for that person to move, or for the company to grow to need another person in that role. Is that person someone you can study and learn from for a while or not? Does another team has the need (faster) for such a role? Evaluate your options. There are always options!

Other Reasons
Of course the above reasons are not the only ones to motivate change of jobs. There are many life events who will lead to evaluations. Also, unpredictable events such as acquisitions, bankruptcy, market crashing and reorganizations. Further, I haven’t touched on the topic of compensation and salary etc. More of that in another blog perhaps.

Maybe you at some point have a change of heart of what you want to do with your life? Don’t be afraid to evaluate such a step if you think it will make you a more fulfilled individual. I have friends who switched from high tech to yoga teacher or to jewelry designer. There are many paths for a rich career and personal growth path, so don’t settle for “just fine” or worse “boring”. Get the most out of your path. Why not start your own company if everything else fails?

There are pretty much no bad experiences. You either win or you learn. I think the only thing that holds us back from our fullest potentials is our fears. Question for you when in doubt: why do you choose to let your fears rule your life? Aren’t you in charge? Don’t you want to experience more?

Hope you enjoyed this post. Feel free to post questions below if you have any.

Considering Management?

Many aspiring brilliant young engineers are set on a growth path to management, although what they would be much better at is advancing in engineering. There are very few valid and rewarding career paths for pure engineering though, which is a problem in our industry. Most engineers hence feel a need to either go to management. Many of these engineers should have done much better if they were provided a career path where they would rather lead in terms of technology, architectural decisions, design and future technology direction. But those roles are usually few within one and the same company. Many engineers I know dread to deal with day-to-day effort of keeping everyone else on track and projects delivered on time and building stretched resource plans. Not everyone is cut out to lead people and motivate career paths, so why is management even in their career path at all?

My recommendation and wish to any brilliant young engineer out there is that If you at all feel pressured into management, for whatever reason (social pressure, the only option of career growth, cultural expectations, etc.) to try to find another way to growth. Feeling pressured is a sign that you might not want to. Why not try to get deep in a new technology? Why not focus on end-to-end design or some other area that provides growth? Perhaps technology acquisition projects or partner engineering / integration work? To widen your technical horizons, before considering people management and moving “up”. Move sideways? Or perhaps write a book, start a tech blog, become an open source committer, ask HR for more engineering levels and advancements and responsibilities that don’t involve people management? Management is not fun unless you enjoy trying to understand people and their motivation, solving conflicts and handle confrontation, come up with solutions for poor work behavior, building ever challenging career plans for others, accomplishing deliveries with ever less resources (the more successful you are).

Ask yourself: do you find politics a bit of a fun game to win or do you find it draining? Are conflicts exhausting or thrilling? There is a cold side to the people management role, a rational of always representing the business in whatever form it trickles down, and never really be fully part of the team. Unless you are willing to see the reality from both your team’s perspective and the stakeholders’ perspectives (the latter which might be a bit too rational at times), and happily argue both, you might want to reconsider taking on a management promotion.

I don’t suggest you shouldn’t try it if you are curious. Also, I do recommend having the experience. However, always consider there is a way back to engineering. Management mustn’t be the end goal, if it drains you and takes away your work enthusiasm.  I have friends who tried and then went back to engineering. They are very happy engineers today, with more understanding of management. And I do think it is a good experience to know all the heavy weight on your shoulders as a manager, that you need to carry. It might even be fun and challenging sides to management you wouldn’t know unless you tried. I’m just arguing that management is not for everyone, and it isn’t the only option to growth. It shouldn’t be the only option to growth! So don’t take it unless you love people problems as much as engineering problems. Push your organization to provide other growth paths. If you are unhappy in your management role, it will just hurt others around you and their careers.

Don’t imagine you can continue doing things you liked to do as an engineer and don’t imagine for a second you won’t be held to a higher standard on deliverables, with higher pressure, and without the same buffer as you used to have as a fellow engineer. You are at a higher altitude and the winds blow harder the higher you climb. Things will change. And most of the time, you won’t have time for the “other things” anymore. Like coding. I’m saying most of the time, as there are a few exceptions.

Also, ask for coaching or a mentor the first time you enter management, as a lot of things can be overwhelming. You can read my previous blog posts on mentorship to get inspired.

What inspired today’s blog post was a conversation I had the other day with a GREAT engineering manager. I really wish this manager know how great, as there was a bit of distress in our conversation. Management can be heavy sometimes, but also rewarding in the end. The list of this manager’s strengths is long, but I thought I’d post it here for inspiration. This is what I think makes this manager with engineering background GREAT:

  • Patient with people
  • Ability to gently cut bull shit and empty whining, to get to an actionable point – in pretty much any meeting
  • Accountability – hold people responsible, as well as oneself to what one signs up to do
  • Willingness to _solve_ problems over becoming part of them
  • Integrity and speaking well and realistically about others
  • Caring about the well being of the team
  • Always trying to see the rational behind every decision, over reacting selfishly and purely emotionally
  • Transparent, honest, and open with feelings as well as logic behind decisions
  • Emotional intelligence and social skills
  • No ego trying to raise over the value over the team
  • Ability to create action plans with assigned owners in the matter of minutes – even in critical and stressful situations
  • Deep technical knowledge, yet curious to learn new things from others and from new as well as old engineers on the team
  • Not claiming to know best on everything, allowing others to grow on the team and suggesting solutions
  • Clear, respectful, friendly, to the point communication style – never bad-mouthing anyone else (which often happens with insecure managers)
  • Long-term, strategic thinking – without playing games

It is rare you find all these management features in an engineer turned manager. I leave you on this positive note that there are many successful engineer to manager promotions. Just be careful that it is what you would love to do.

Role Models and Mentorship – Part 3

This is the last of three blog posts on the topic of role models and mentorship. You can read the first and the second blog post to get more input and ideas.

Do I recommend mentorship?

It is fantastic to be able to work close with someone you look up to and at the same time can learn from. There are many ways to insight and progress, but none as efficient as discussing a problem with someone else. Not only do you use more parts of your brain and thereby make more areas active that can open up new pathways of thinking, but also, you get an express lane to visit lands outside your own perspectives, conclusions, and experiences – which I believe is the most important step in problem solving, especially when you are stuck. I think mentorships and role models are key to more rapid growth than you can achieve on your own.

So yes, I do recommend mentors – if you are willing to do the hard work it takes to grow! Both paid-for and non-paid are equally helpful. It is all about finding whose thoughts will help you forward. Deeper mentorship is very helpful at times when you need it, but I’ve personally never continued those for more than six to eight months in a row. Different mentorships for different stages in your career! Role models, on the other hand, I have all the time, although they also shift over time.

Last note for this round on the topic of mentorship and role models: Don’t be afraid to dissolve a mentorship when

  1. It does not help anymore
  2. You have achieved your goal or resolved the situation and everything is progressing again
  3. You’ve “overused” a mentor. Meaning, there is a time when the student might become the master, or when the mentor feels all advise or experience have been shared on a topic or for a specific role or goal (especially non-paid mentorships!). So be considerate and be aware. Busy people also needs to see results of their time spent, so if you need some time to work on the new insights gained, make the proposition to meet in six months and see where things have landed – it does not have to be every week or every month.

A mentorship is what you make out of it. You get back what you put in. It is your work to get to the next level, not the mentor’s, so you should chose a time in your career where you are willing to do the heavy lifting of change. As you grow, you should also move forward and seek new mentorships along the way.

Last but not least, never forget to stay grateful for everyone of them, as they all are part of your success. Stay humble, yet hungry, you have always more to learn!

Role Models and Mentorship – Part 2

This is the second blog post on the topic of role models and mentorship. Read the previous one here.

When to seek mentorship, what can you expect to get out of it, and what kind of mentor should you seek?

In my experience, the best time to seek mentorship is when you feel like you’ve tried all options and tools in your current tool box to solve a situation or to achieve a goal and still can’t seem to move forward. Another good reason is if you want to achieve a goal but don’t really know how to go about or what paths could be considered.

In my experience it is valuable to seek input from multiple sources when you find yourself in such a situation. Meaning, if seeking a mentor, seek more than one, to get faster results and wider perspective.

What you get back from a serious mentorship is actually what you put into it. If you find a mentor that ask the right questions, share stories that inspire you to new ideas or ways to approach or think about things, then you are on a good path. However, you also need to do the heavy lifting yourself. The mentor can’t give you the raise, the promotion, or give you better organization skills, or whatever your goal is. Also, the mentor might say things you don’t like to hear, and it is up to you to work on it and take to heart non-pleasing truths and observations. Only you can change your actions and behavior and do the hard work it takes to get to the next level of personal or career growth. The mentor is just an accelerating tool.

Remember, if things feel hard, that what’s worth learning never comes easy. Growing will be hard and frustrating many times. And here is where a good mentor can help you to stick it through to the other side, with encouragements and sometimes clear milestones and metrics of that you are going the right way towards your goal.

What kind of mentor to choose depends on what you seek to get out of it:

  • Goal-oriented mapping
    Which mentor to pick depends on the growth you want to pursue or the question or problem at hand.
  • Experience-oriented mapping
    Sometimes you need to discuss with someone much more experienced, sometimes it is actually better to chat with someone your own age group or on similar career level as you are.
  • Gender-oriented mapping
    Hearing from both a male and a female mentor on the same topic or question could in some cases help perspectives and understanding of gender dynamics in the workplace. However, I strongly am of the opinion that good mentorship in general is gender-agnostic and the value lies in having multiple perspectives.
  • Role-oriented mapping
    If you want to get help with a specific career step, it helps if the mentor has indeed gone through similar steps. Picking someone who has gone the path you are interested in going is obviously an advantage.
  • Multi-coaching
    Diversity and variety is important to get a fuller perspective. Having multiple points of view will enable you to learn quickly and to utilize more than one way to achieve a goal.

Chose your mentor with care and with a plan, but also keep your mind open to change your mind if it does not work out. In the end it is a lot about communication chemistry and if the advice given is actually helping you grow. A way to keep track of this is to set up clear milestones and metrics and make sure you do progress towards them and continuously evaluate if the mentorship is contributing to it.