50 - The more people I talk to, the more confused I get. Help!



Ever wondered why this happens?

The product manager says engineering is not sticking to timelines; the tech lead says that the specs are not clear; and the project manager says that their time goes setting up meetings and trying to get everyone to follow a schedule. And oh, everyone says they’re working really hard.

If you lead a team, how do you build your own map from different viewpoints?

The first thing you can do is avoid the worst outcome, which is to not trust your team. So, believe them when they say that they’re working their darnedest and accept that their complaints are genuine. Because they’re most likely true.

Then go directly to the source. What you’ve with you from your reports is second-hand information, which is possibly a version of their reports’ distillations. It’s the classic map versus territory problem. Replace looking at the map with walking on the actual terrain.

Finally, do the grunt work. Ask detailed questions. Be ready to look stupid. Filter responses by motivations. The classic principal-agent problem.

These steps are hard and if there’s one outcome guaranteed at the end of it, it is that you’re now closer to reality. Accept this or you’ll be humbled time and again.

The more people I talk to, the lesser I learn

Clashing versions aside, sometimes you may also get the message that everything’s just fine. And then there’s some inevitable hiccup and the launch gets delayed or it’s a buggy release or whatever. When someone tells you that everything’s fine, understand first if they’ve thought deeply about the problem they’re trying to solve. Or if they have just regurgitated something passed on to them by their direct reports. Shit travels uphill too.

A way to pick this out is to drive deeper with a series of whys. Soon enough, if the person hasn’t thought enough, they’ll hit rock. If they have, they’ll just keep going.

Whether you hear multiple versions of what’s going on or the same superficial version from all, it is your job to scratch that surface. As a leader in charge of diverse business units, I don’t recall feeling confident enough in my intuition to simply pick out signs and go with my gut. I preferred to put myself through the paces, and found out that it became a little easier with each try.

What has been your experience like of getting to the truth?

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