Stop Stepping In

Moments ago I found an article by Jason Fried titled The owner’s word weighs a ton. This is what got me thinking about my own experience with owners "stepping in".

It was 2018 and a client got me on board to help them take a project out of the ruts and build a strong development team. As soon as I got there it was clear to me that hell was quite  nice place.

They had two Jira boards: one for the client, and another for the dev team. They had a dedicated person who would sync the tickets from the dev team's Jira board to the client's board.

They had two Git repositories and a scheduled job to replicate the dev team's repo into a separate repo the client would see.

The client had no access to the development team. It was the "dedicated person" who had access to client communication. They would translate back and forth. And man was the translation poor!

As I said, I've been to hell and it looked nicer. 

Amidst all this opaque and unnecessary complexity, there was one thing, one behavior to be precise, which caused more pain and chaos than everything else.

Let me explain: 

It's easy to spot that two Jira boards and two repos and an opaque client-provider communication strategy needs change. It's like the wood splinter that's stuck in your finger. It's noticeable. It hurts. But you can also remove it rather quickly.

Unfortunately, the untreated infection caused by the splinter is another story. 

Since my client was a small company, their COO, a very talented woman, was doing tons of things. Among those things, she did client communication and people ops.

So she would drop by form time to time to ask how are things going, or if X is going to make it in this release. She'd sometimes ask for the status on something she herself de-prioritised after talking to the client, two days prior. It was clear she was doing a lot (if not too much).

You can probably guess what happened. Once she'd mention something, that would immediately become the priority for the day. Why else would she mention something unless she wanted that thing done ASAP?!

She's very open-minded, so I had a sitdown with her and explained what was happening and how she was affecting progress. 

I explained that when she drops by, she's not a manager interested in the project's health. She is not someone from the team and will not be seen as such. She's one of the people who sign the checks. Often for people older than her.

I told her that even if it's not her intention, the full weight of her position sits behind everything she says or asks for. 

And that was the end of it.

Well, not quite. 

See, this became sort of a habit for her. And the project was still not doing well. The client was still edgy, and they still resorted to their old way of communicating, pushing the COO into her old patterns.

Oh, and did I mention the client would actually keep track of work in an Excel Spreadsheet? Well, now I have. They did not use their dedicated Jira board other than to update their spreadsheet.

How did I fix all of this? By relying on other people. I relied on her understanding and maturity, and on the openness the team I was helping showed towards change. 

I got rid of her asking for things by creating a physical Kanban board. Whenever she would ask about status on stuff, we'd point to the board. Whenever she'd ask that stuff get done, we would we'd point to the board. We would ask her to add something on the expedite lane if she needed it quickly.

Then we would show her all the work we would drop to satisfy that one client whim. It worked like a charm.

Don't get me wrong, we weren't just pointing at the board and hoping she would get scared and we would avoid work. I actually set out to make her, and the client happy. That's why the team would constantly keep an envelope nearby to hold all the shipped tickets. We'd offer her the envelope and allow her to enjoy the win alongside us. 

It's like the hunter who finally gets to take home the animal he's been following for hours. 

Unfortunately, something that a 26yo COO understood straight off the bat, was impossible to grok for another 50+yo C-level exec.

So next time you feel like your two cents are valuable — which they often are — hold your horses and don't offer them. Keep your two cents to yourself.