Sunday, August 14, 2022

Building The Habitual Year

 As a new Product Manager, you’ve got a huge increase of demands on your time. You’re now the person responsible for answers about the product, and if you’re selling it globally or developing it overseas, that means you’ve now got a never-ending day. Additionally, it’s not just those tactical questions of “does it compete with Foo” or “can we prioritize Bar”… you’re on the hook for a strategic plan as well. Quick, how does this product serve your company’s goals, have you fixed bug number 8675309, and what’s your projection of outcomes if we OEMed an adjacent feature and bundled it?

Don’t despair though, there are ways to handle the load and thrive. The key is to understand the tempo of product development, and use processes to ride that tempo. Use your calendar to make time. When things need to be done and you don’t have time or materials to do them right now… put time onto your calendar right now. Think it will take three hours for that task? Why not block two blocks of three hours next week. Think it will take ten minutes? Block thirty. Know that you have to do a series of tasks over a month? Schedule the blocks where you’ll do them, and explain that schedule in writing to the stakeholders who are waiting on those tasks.

Next, think about which processes need to be done. From the outside in:

  • You need to have a goal, and a vision for exactly how your products are going to help that goal. You might not be the person responsible for doing that or making it make sense, but you need to know that you're heading North instead of West.
  • You need to have a plan for sales and marketing and a plan for R&D. You might not be responsible for delivery and execution of either, or you might be closely involved in one or the other or both... but you need to know that someone is taking care of these plans.
  • You need to do tactical work to complete the product plan and achieve the company's goal
  • You need to assess your PM load and discuss with your leadership if you need help or can give help.

Luckily, all that easily translates to calendar items… some more flexible than others. It’s not like you need to set the hours you’ll spend on Q4 planning before you can proceed with your January, but it does help to realize that halfway through Q3 you will be spending a week on Q4 planning. You’ll also spend a week on your sales kickoff in Q1, and a week on your customer conference in Q4. Are there industry conferences you need to be at? Get them in your plan. 

The rest of your calendar fills in with three types of meetings (in order of importance): customer calls, standing meetings, and one-on-ones. This stuff will expand to fill all gaps, so here’s three bits of advice:

  • set your working hours, transit times, and meal times — and then defend them
  • take vacations. When you take a vacation, disconnect from work. When you plan a vacation, delete what you can, delegate what’s left, and reschedule what has to be done by you.
  • Leave any meeting that is not adding value (at the least by tuning out, but dropping is good too)

This flood of activity can be hard to keep track of, but luckily there is a process tool for that as well… set a block of time to reflect on what happened every week. 

One last thing… what I’ve just described is a plan, and plans don’t always survive reality. When reality intrudes and disrupts this plan, look back on all the things that didn’t get done. Are they still necessary? If so, reschedule them because they still have to be done. If the new reality has obviated those tasks, congratulations — you get to delete some items.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

How to Run a Standing Team Call

A standing team call is any call where a group of people meet regularly.  Every time you notice that it’s coming up, try to take a few minutes to do these things:

Figure out what type of call it is, then ask, does this call still need to exist? Some possible answers:

  • The call provides a status update. Well, couldn’t that be done asynchronously? There are definitely cases where asynchronous is effective, but if you have important information to share you might need a standing synchronous opportunity in addition.
  • The call provides a decision forum. Well, couldn’t that be done asynchronously? Maybe a lot of things are getting done that way, but it’s still helpful to have a place where the decision is Made and Communicated, so that it doesn’t float in limbo.
  • The call provides a social forum for people to work together. This is critical in a distributed team; water-cooler video chats are great, paired programming sessions work, but structured whole team time for triage and status sharing is where the team-formation-and-maintenance rubber meets the road. 
  • The call has always been there. Like Chesterton’s Fence, it was set up before any of us got here and we’ve just kept it going. Maybe the CEO asked for this but no longer has time to attend? Maybe it’s a social forum for leaders who rarely interact? Every re-org or change of management is an opportunity to revisit the calendar. A much-welcomed power move is to review standing meetings with overlapping personnel and consolidate them into a single meeting. 

If you can’t come up with an answer for why this meeting exists in your own head, ask the attendees. Maybe they’re heartily sick of this call. Maybe they think it’s important. Get information. 

If the call remains useful, proceed.

Review the call materials and invitees. I find my most productive status update calls are done by openly reviewing a document that I’ve already prepared or had a direct report prepare. Any gaps in my knowledge are corrected in realtime in front of our stakeholders. Any questions from stakeholders are captured in that document and answered later if we can’t answer them there. Do your call materials allow that? Are they editable by the right people so that your team can help you prepare? Are they readable by the right people so that stakeholders who can’t attend could asynchronously review? Are you all still getting value from the log that this material represents? Standing meetings generally exist in response to trauma, is this one working to reduce or prevent traumatic events? Do new team members know why it's there and what's appropriate to discuss? Do new stakeholders have an invite?

Run the call. You are the emcee, and this is your show. Get it done snappily. Use humor if you’re able to do so safely, but be aware that clever can fail badly. Be energetic, honest, clear, and above all concise. The written materials can provide detail and link to resources, you’re just here to encourage people to talk about their project status. Call them out, gently shut them down if they go into too much detail, and summarize what they said verbally and in the written materials. When you call on someone, watch their status icons. If they’re struggling to unmute, acknowledge that… if it’s a pattern, maybe note in your next one on one that this is a call where participants are expected to be on the ball and get the communication done crisply. Don’t let anyone drone on for several minutes, any meeting’s hold on a group of people is tenuous to begin with.

Praise in public, criticize in private. If team members are doing well, call them out. If they aren’t, schedule a 1:1 or 2:1 with their manager to discuss your concern. Enforce this standard with your stakeholders as well; if someone wants to complain that your work for them is running late, tell them you’ll take this conversation offline. If someone brings up a surprise for you, note it and move on. You're not here to get answers, you're here to find questions.

Watch the clock. Start it as soon after the scheduled time as you can, and wrap it up as quickly as you can smoothly achieve. Some socialization is fine if you’ve got a “one-pizza” team. Two pizzas on the call, it’s time to be a little strict. More people than that, they don’t want to hear about anyone’s vacation. Use a stopwatch app if you need, and publicly acknowledge as a team success if you’ve ended the call early. You’re here to get the objective of the synchronous call done as fast as possible. If you book thirty minutes for a call and get it done in ten, no one is going to be sad about that. If you do that regularly, you'll get more attendees.

That said, at the end of the call be sure to open it up. I like to use specific catch phrases like “open floor, any questions or issues from the team?” In a standing call, that rhythm and predictability helps the half-listening realize that this is their time to talk. Give them thirty seconds to get off mute, then wrap it up.

If the meeting is to be recorded, make sure you click record before you start and post the recording to the location where it belongs before the day ends.

Make sure that the location of materials (written notes, resource links, recording storage, metrics dashboards, &c) is in the calendar invite.

Mission Statements


A good mission statement is an aspirational goal that helps everyone move in roughly the correct direction. 

It is not strictly descriptive of what the organization is currently like, but it should reflect the best moments attained. An aspiration that is not grounded in the possible is easily ignored, or worse yet leads to folly.

It should be short. “The bandwidth for communication in a large organization is about six words”, says @clintsharp, meaning you can’t get complex ideas from top to bottom or side to side. Try for a fifth grade reading level, not a doctoral dissertation. Simple words, simple sentences, declarative voice. Picking on a semi-random example, AT&T: “to exploit technical innovations for the benefit of AT&T and its customers by implementing next-generation technologies and network advancements in AT&T’s services and operations.” That might seem a little mercenary for some folks, so it’s softened with this statement of values: “Live true. Think big. Pursue excellence. Be there. Stand for equality. Make a difference.” Note the values statement tries to follow the same rules, but has to have a 244 word explainer page with lots of pictures and shouty fonts. “Exploit technical innovations for the benefit of AT&T and its customers” doesn’t need a lot of explaining, but if you’re still not clear on your job in the biggest American telecom, it’s to “implement next-generation technologies and network advancements”.

If it is working correctly, the mission statement is used in internal disagreements and may help to settle them. Reasonable people will disagree about implementation details, but if a proposal is clearly not in line with the simply stated mission, it should be rejected. Organizational failure to do so doesn’t mean the mission statement is bad though. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Seems clear. So how the heck did this happen? Maybe the increased focus of an enterprise software instead of consumer and enterprise focus would help. Elastic helps people do great things with data. Splunk makes data accessible, usable, and valuable to everyone. Snowflake enables every organization to be data-driven. No chat clients yet, but maybe Zawinski’s Law is still coming for them.

If it is not working correctly, the mission statement may be ignored or mocked as a pointless artifact. This can happen when the aspiration is too vague or too disconnected from day to day reality.  If your mission statement says to do a thing that no one in the company ever works on, it might as well say that you’re all here to solve the problem of warp drive.