What to do when every project is on fire
A story of a few weeks of my job.
- Recognising everything is on fire
- Pinpointing the oxygen feeding the flames
- Proving the issue
- Making measured changes
- Building a critical mass
Recognising everything is on fire
Since I started my job, my first job as an engineering manager, I’ve regularly caught up with my direct reports — 30 mins every week one on one time, pretty consistently.
People have steadily complained about a whole host of things, and all of the complaints were perfectly legitamite. Some things were specifically directed towards me, and I’ve taken that feedback to heart and implemented changes to improve, which I think have worked fairly well.
But many of these complaints were not about me. Instead, they were about our ways of working, frustrations at not feeling well informed, meetings feeling generally unproductive, and everything feeling uncoordinated. Most of these complaints I fully agreed with. But “it’s not my job to fix these institutional problems”, so I’ll tell my boss, and they can fix it. And if it’s not their job, they’ll continue to escalate, until it gets to the person who can fix it, and everything will be ok.
Then within the space of a week, a third of the people under my direct command resigned their positions. I cried a little bit. If that’s not the enormous sign that things are on fire, I would probably be fired before I recognised it.
Pinpointing the oxygen feeding the flames
I needed to start making a change. The first step in solving any problem, is recognising there is one. I can’t solve a problem I don’t understand, so I needed to lay all the cards on the table. I called the entire team together, and asked them honestly, “What’s going wrong with your projects?”. After brainstorming and discussion, we got the following:
- We’re not well aligned with contractors from other companies on activities
- We’re not well aligned with other teams in our own company on activities
- The plan isn’t well communicated
- The plan doesn't even exist — no timelines or estimates, just big unrealistic deadlines.
- There are too many project managers
- There is no project manager
- Every meeting is booked last minute, don’t know what happened during it.
- Nobody knows who to talk to, in order to get themselves unblocked
Is this just us? Just our team? Or is it systemic? How bad is the problem?
Proving the issue
I decided to run a survey. I didn’t ask permission, or execute on a huge scale, I just started. I needed to make progress. If one more person resigns while I’m getting my survey approved, I’d feel pretty stupid. No, technically this isn’t outlined in my roles and responsibilities, but broadly, my responsibility is to support the team to be effective, and if they all complain about an issue and nothing happens, that’s my fault, even if it’s not explicit in some obscure job description.
I’ve done some reading about surveys before. The DORA project does research every year into DevOps practices, and what makes companies high performing. A lot of the learnings are well presented in the book Accelerate. I tried to get quantifiable measurable data, and came up with questions that looked like this:
I demanded my own team fill it in, and begged people in other teams fill it in, but eventually, we had 30 responses, and I had two beautiful statistics to demonstrate that things were bad:
“80% of respondents disagree that the plan is clear and obvious to everyone”.
“75% of respondents disagree that the project is running smoothly overall”
Great, I’ve got some evidence to back up my opinion — but things are not going well, and I’ve got my work cut out for me.
I’m not interested in why things are running the way they are, or blaming anyone for things not going well — I don’t think that will help at all, people will simply become defensive about their role in the project — nobody wants to accept the blame. What we need, is a blameless post-mortem, but on human processes, rather than a code failure. We need everyone to recognise there is a problem, and address at the root:
We are not communicating effectively on a large scale.
Making Measured Changes
So my role, in my mind, has temporarily become chief of making sure we are communicating effectively on a large scale. How do we do that? Whatever we are doing today, despite everyone’s best intentions, is not working.
Firstly, we’re not communicating on a large scale whatsoever, never mind doing it effectively. There was no forum to communicate to all humans involved in a project.
Step 1 — Create a place for everyone to communicate without silos.
For us, this means creating a Microsoft Teams team (no easier way to say that, so sometimes I use the word room instead). Everyone was communicating via email chains, in meetings, via 1–2–1 instant message. From now on, blanket statement — “All communications about work on this project, must happen in this channel. No exceptions”.
Step 2 — identify the project governance person, and make expectations clear
We needed every project our team works on, to work consistently. That means for each project, we need them to run the same. I asked our delivery management team to pinpoint an exact person for each project. I outlined the expectations for them about the plan, roles and people.
Step 3 — make a plan, talk about it a lot
Project manager responsible to create, maintain and update a plan of action, and guide things in this plan, and use this as the driving force of communication across teams and activities, and feed back to senior stakeholders from the same plan.
Project manager responsible to define the roles and responsibilities for people involved in the project, and make sure they are easy to find in the team. For this, I asked the project manager to maintain the team tags for finding the right people:
Building a Critical Mass
I won’t lie — this was an uphill struggle.
- Couldn’t get all the right people in the team
- Everyone ignoring the room and using email anyway
- People not adhering to meeting etiquette
I can’t stop working on these projects, nor can I force everyone to change their way of working, not everyone reports to me directly. I needed to persuade people that this was the best course of action, to make sure we’re communicating effectively.
Some people are early adopters and easy to persuade. Some people are followers and will come once you’ve built it. Others are latecomers who need to have their hand held and asked very very nicely to come on board Noah’s Ark. For the latter groups, I needed to demonstrate to them the value that we were getting, in improved communications.
I had to respond to email threads and ask people to use the MS Team channel instead, and stop replying to the email thread. I would copy their entire email chain into the teams channel and only reply there. I had to convince contracts from external companies to stop using their primary employer’s identity, and start using the identity our company provided, which was painful as most of them didn’t use it regularly and had forgotten passwords or been locked out.
I had to convince people to cancel their regular meetings and recurring meetings, and re-book them in the channel and convince them that this was a worthwhile activity.
I had to regularly post in the channels with updates on changes to the project, and convince project governance people to do the same.
Slowly but surely, it started coming together:
Once we reach this level of input and the project seems to be going more smoothly, we then have a lot more leverage to ask every team and every project to follow a similar template, which we’ve got well established.
I can’t bring back the people who have resigned — the damage is done. But I don’t want people to quit their job because they’re fed up — I want them to quit because they’ve reached their full potential and are ready for the next challenge.
I want to know that I’m having an impact — so the plan is to run the survey again, now that we’ve tried something, and figure out what works, what doesn’t work.
But we need to make progress and move forward — for our shareholders, for our customers, but most of all, for ourselves.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted. This new job has been incredible, and kept me very busy. Thank you to the few people who prompted me to get back on the horse. Let’s hope it’s a renewed habit.