Insights

How to Look Round Corners

(This is one of a set of notes from my work coaching founders, CEOs and technical leaders in the tech industry.  Originally published in the “Leadership, Management and Being Human” newsletter)

The sales number looked great with two weeks to go, and now we’ve missed it.  By a lot.  Up to the last week, the sales team was solid: “98% likely.  We’ve got a bunch of upside”.  The product was going to ship in three weeks, for sure, and now it needs another month.  The weekend before the ship date the product team was quietly confident: “yes, we’ll make it”.   They were wrong.

This happens (not usually both at the same time, I should add :-), and has shown up in coaching a few times in the last year.

At some point in a management career, and the earlier the better, we need to develop the ability to look round corners, to see the ice starting to get thin, to sense when the wheels are about to come off (if you’ll forgive the many mixed metaphors).  This is where management becomes much more than checking tasks off a list, or numbers off a spreadsheet.  Now we are learning to sense the scope and abilities of the organization.

Look at this as a skill to learn, a perspective which is part management chops, part EQ (reading other people) and part simply pattern matching that comes with experience.

Here are some places to start:

Trust the processes:  if the project plan is blinking red, the spreadsheets are showing negative numbers, pay attention. That’s what they are there for.  This sounds simple, but it isn’t because those numbers were put there by humans and humans don’t like failing.  So…

Challenge Denial: we don’t like failing.  So we can always “make it up on the last day”, “fix the bugs on the weekend”.  Some heroics work.  But you need to challenge the natural tendency of humans to deny what’s really going on.

Dig Deeper: “we can make it up”.  Well good.  How, exactly?  Who’s on it?  When are they flying to see the customer?  Who are they meeting?  Don’t be afraid to dig.  Don’t be afraid to challenge detail.  You are, in the end, providing the great service of clarity to the team. Together you can figure out reality now, or have to deal with it later.

Empathic, Determined Curiosity: you are not digging to assign blame, or to undercut anybody.  You’re digging to provide clarity.  Empathy with the people who are working so hard, and stand to feel failure if the goals aren’t met, is essential.  Be curious.  A detective, not an umpire.

Trust Your Gut About People: a nervous answer to the question “are we on plan?” warrants some digging.  Tired, frazzled engineers means you should ask some questions.  As a human being, you can sense trouble, uncertainty, anxiety – it’s an ancient set of responses in the brain.  It’s there.  Learn to listen.

Review What Happened: The Five Whys is a great tool for reviewing what happened when a miss occurs.  (And you’ve got to review what happens when a miss occurs).  Non-blaming, transparent review builds up your, and your organization’s experience bank and creates a more subtle set of signals for next time.

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