Telling the Truth


I was sitting in a room full of senior executives as we listened to the product managers provide their monthly updates. We were about six months from the retail season, and all of these projects were critical to achieving that year’s revenue goals.

Product Manager after Product Manager explained how they were still on track. This was my first time sitting in this meeting since joining the company, so I listened quietly and took copious notes. At about the halfway point, I started asking each presenter, “What is your level of confidence that you will meet your launch dates”?

The response in almost all cases was “Over 90%.”

This team had completed just a tiny fraction of the projects in the portfolio in time for the product launch the previous year. All projects had been “on-track” right until shortly before the launch date when suddenly, and seemingly without warning, most of the projects were off-track. Based on the answers to questions I had posed to the executive team, I knew that we were on the same trajectory as the year before.

“Honesty has a power that very few people can handle.”

Steven Aitchison

Since very little had changed since the previous year, I saw no reason to expect this year’s results to be different. This unrealistic and inaccurate reporting resulted from the following “Blissful” conditions-

  • Blissful Ignorance: Confidence, such as I had witnessed, can result from the simple fact that the teams had surfaced no challenges. Maybe Leadership hadn’t asked the right questions, or the team was just too inexperienced in interpreting the leading indicators realistically. Alternatively, this ignorance could be the result of the following two situations.
  • Blissful Arrogance: There is something wild and magical about tech teams. They seem able to muster confidence in their ability to solve almost any problem. Since they were confident in solving the problem anyway, why notify folks higher up the chain? They will stick their noses in and “muck up the works.”
  • “Blissful” Trepidation: Culture plays a huge part in an organization’s ability to execute, particularly in tech organizations where innovation and problem-solving are tools of the trade. If these organizations cannot celebrate the Lessons Learned (aka “failures”), production teams will not surface challenges for mostly self-preservation reasons. A lack of psychological safety will stifle timely communication of actual status. There is nothing blissful about this emotional state of mind. Fear of loss of job security for providing an accurate assessment will kill an organization’s ability to execute predictably.

My teams’ responsibility was to improve portfolio performance. The immediate problem was to understand an accurate assessment of the current program status. The “Blissful” Pied Piper was leading toward a seemingly inevitable catastrophe for the upcoming retail season. 

The burning questions at that moment were-

  • How can we quantify the disconnect between forecast and reality?
  • How do we identify and resolve the condition(s) root causes?

Simplicity is a wonderful thing. 

There is a truism in business that results don’t improve simply because the cost of under-performing increases. Einstein called it insanity if one expects improved results without change. 

The results of the “Blissful” conditions are insidious. If everything is “good” at the moment, then there is nothing to fix, and when the deadlines appear on the near horizon, insufficient runway remains to fix the issues that are finally recognized. These repeated situations lead directly to employee disengagement and an unsustainable level of employee turnover, in addition to the missed opportunities to delight your customers. (More on this in a future article)

So, how do we quickly answer question #1?

One method that has worked well is a straightforward implementation of the Level of Confidence (LoC) metric. This measure is often as impactful in its most basic form as its most complicated. I am a big fan of the most straightforward implementation of the LoC framework.

Ask.

Go to your most reliable technical problem solvers and ask them. In the case described above, I asked all the Project Managers and Scrum Masters to query their teams every Friday to ascertain that teams’ LoC of their ability to complete their work on time. I didn’t care if they asked for anonymous results that they averaged or the team came to a consensus. Trust your managers to know the best way to obtain this data.

All we need is a percentage of the likelihood of each of the components of the project (Epic, Story, Project) likelihood of success.

The results were informative. Even though the Product Managers had an average LoC of near 90%, the functional teams’ average LoC was closer to 30%.

Asking was an essential first step. It provided the space and imperative for the most critical question-

“Why”?

Leadership now had a framework to ask the right questions, identify the risks and create a plan to mitigate or eliminate them. Having this information in hand six months prior to launch greatly improved the retail season launch. 

Direct impact on the bottom line!

Question #2 is a topic too large to append to the end of an already long post. Keep an eye open for my next article, which will address root causes and resolution tactics for the three “Blissful” conditions.

Until then, smile; it helps!

Chris

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