BA (21/52): Context > Shield
Technical Program Managers are told to shield their engineering teams from the chaos of engineering leadership and politics. That they should only be worried about the outcomes of the discussions.
I operated in this weird contradiction for much of my career: I was frustrated when decisions were made that I may have disagreed with but nothing was shared to us about the why they arrived at this decision. In addition, I was supposed to do the same to my engineering teams. Shield them from the chaos of decision making but have them obey with the decisions.
This was especially frustrating at Apple. Let me kick up some old memories.
The Software Engineering PMO (responsible for iOS, macOS, iPadOS, and WatchOS) operated very much in a “shield and adhere” mode of operation. What mattered was that the EPMs (Engineering Program Manager which is the equivalent of the Technical Program Manager at Google or Facebook or Amazon) made sure all engineering teams adhered to the decision. How we arrived at the decisions didn’t matter. It was irrelevant. That used to annoy me so much.
I believe it is not in our nature as humans to accept things easily without understanding their origins. Captain Obvious would be pleased with this statement of mine.
Why else do we continue to peer into the sky looking for answers about life’s origin? I suppose for some it is easier to just focus on what needs to be done rather than the why. I am a TPM that needs to understand the context and origin of decisions; so should every TPM. Alas - at Apple there was no room for that.
I stuck with this philosophy because all my leaders told me to focus on shielding my engineering teams from this chaos. A lot of the books I read about leadership or project management all said - shield your teams. So, I did what I was taught.
It wasn’t until I became a Director at Nike where I came across an extremely wise and amazing Senior Director of Product who gave the most contrarian advise:
“Aadil, don’t do that, don’t shield your teams, share with them everything, all the details all the messy details, the politics, the discussions, the nonsense but give them context on how they should think about what they just heard. You do this and you can get them to do anything willingly. Show them that you care and understand their position and frustration beyond lip service. Don’t shield them, give them context.”
Okay, this gave me pause and think back to all the frustrating moments where I had to say “Team, we have to just do it, we don’t have an option, this is the decision”.
Through the groans and moans, I wonder if the result could’ve been different if I had also shared the context.
I strongly believe that it is better to give engineering teams the full details along with the context of how to think about what is being shared instead of shielding them completely. This may sound scary and uncomfortable at first. Remember, you are not gossiping or dishing out secrets, you have to have trust in your teams and trust comes from sharing.
During my leadership tenure at Nike and going forward, I made a pledge that I will share all the details with my teams and direct reports. Nothing was a secret. This is something consistently my teams appreciated about me.
It is important that they understand what goes into difficult conversations and decisions. Politics and power plays happen but your teams need to know. It gives them more situational awareness and that is always better than a team working in the blind or fog of engineering chaos.
They need to appreciate that leadership often isn’t ivory tower style making things up; the discussions are difficult and sometimes contentious, spirited, emotional. Empathy with the leaders creates better cohesion and adherence to engineering decisions.
Whether they disagree or agree with the decision, I will still ask them to adhere to the directive we have received BUT, they will understand what it took to arrive at this point and perhaps appreciate the decision a tad bit more.
Context > Shield.
Until next time 👋!
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