I Have No Time For Indecision

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There are few greater virtues of a leader as important as having the fortitude to make a decision, the insight to evaluate the results, and the willingness to adapt accordingly.

Lieutenant Dike wasn’t a bad leader because he made bad decisions. He was a bad leader because he made no decisions. -Sergeant Lipton (Band of Brothers)

A little while ago I was working at a company that was having a bit of trouble figuring out the dance between product management and software development. There were, of course, a million finger points and that's-not-my-jobs, but after the dust cleared we identified the primary issues more or less boiled down to the lack of a unified vision and conflicting priorities for our products and features.

For an overview, there was a single intake backlog for the product team that was managed by multiple people, most of whom didn’t feel the need to… you know... speak to each other and just kept setting the business value of their own requests higher and higher to push it to the top of the list. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to claim that their super hawt on fire request was the top TOP priority requesting us to drop everything, only to have a few hours later a completely different product manager do the exact same thing. Obviously this is not a sustainable or sane practice if there is even a hope to create quality software and not drive the teams crazy.

This, as you may have guessed, hit a tipping point and things blew up all over the place. Finally, after many escalation emails I decided to sit down with the directors of this mess to have a meaningful and heart warming discussion on the issues the teams were seeing. The director of product management proceeded to explain that he was unable (or unwilling) to set priorities because the Executive Team wasn’t clearly setting priorities (who he reported to).

{insert facepalm}

Actually, in my experience, when faced with a lack of direction and vision from the top, waiting by the phone in the hopes it will be resolved is the exact wrong thing to do. What this director failed to see was that priorities are being made at all levels whether they want them to or not. Someone is not able to physically work on 2 things at once, so by that rationale alone, down to the individual level priorities are being made. This is a perfect example of us needing to manage up in this case, and setting priorities as needed.

Not having clear goals and priorities for a development team can be catastrophic. In small organizations and startups, the teams more or less create a vision themselves and refine as they go. As companies scale, this responsibility often gets pushed off to product management and business analysts. The trouble then arises when the separation of responsibility creates a gap between the goals of the business (typically product management) and the goals of the development teams. I’ve seen this go really well, but also fail horribly.

The irony of the situation is that if the development teams have a crystal clear vision of the business and are empowered to make decisions, they will almost always make the correct choice. The key in this situation would have been to empower people at all levels of the organization to make decisions, although that’s easier said than done.

Being faced with a person who has been awarded the authority, but completely incapable of making decisions is a tricky situation for any leader, to say the least. However, standing by idle waiting for a decision to be made is arguably as negligent to the team. There are few greater virtues of a leader as important as having the fortitude to make a decision, the insight to evaluate the results, and the willingness to adapt accordingly.