Discover more from BR: Technical Program Manager’s Field Manual
Shape of "Trust" - Pt 2: Pathways and Individuals
Multiple part essay on my observations and notes on how Technical Program Managers deal with and can foster a strong healthy culture of trust.
It's been a while since my last post and for a good reason. I was neck deep in getting our store ready for launch and boy what a journey that has been. I am so proud of the engineering and design team for what they pulled off and my privilege to be the lead engineering program manager for this monster e-commerce launch.
Humane officially revealed and started sale of our ai pin this week - https://hu.ma.ne. Do check it out - public orders are now open.
After a nice little vacation from writing, I am back and resuming regular programming.
Tell me if you had this conversation before with your leaders or partner leads in Eng or Product:
Manager: I don’t think IC Dave is working out.
Manager: Because they are not contributing as expected of someone of their level.
TPM: Have you talked to Dave about this?
Manager: I keep telling him he is a Senior IC, he should already know how to be effective.
Complex systems depend on individual parts operating efficiently. For cross functional teams, individual contributions are essential. We hire talented individuals and rely on them to perform. Trust is maintained when they fulfill their duties and continue to perform.
When trust in an individual diminishes due to mistakes or unmet deadlines, is it because their skills were misjudged, or are they not a good cultural fit? Could it be a lack of competence?
In every conversation of the type I outined above - whether the IC is an engineer or TPM or PM - skill is rarely the issue. It is a matter of expectation.
What can been done in these situations to help the ICs regain trust? TPMs will and can have a role to play in this scenario.
Make sure the expectation is set properly. When I joined Apple, I kept relying on the way BlackBerry did work to help me navigate my tasks at Apple. It was a struggle for me. Eventually, someone said to me “Look, your BlackBerry experience got you to Apple. Your Apple experience will help you with Apple.” Setting the right expectation is making sure what is expected of an IC from day to day to week to week to project to project is very clear. There is nothing more infuriating and useless than the statement “they are a senior they should already know what to do”. We cannot divine these expectations, they must be spelled out in plain language no matter how senior.
As a TPM, work with the manager to help document and ensure proper expectation is set for ICs at all levels. When a new hire joins, spend time with them and walk them through the system of work at the company. That is the extra mile you can go so they know what the expectation is.
Evaluate Your 30-60-90 Day Onboarding plan. When I joined Google, I received a lengthy checklist of things I needed to do as part of onboarding. This included everything from administrative tasks to team introductions and documentation. The classes that stood out was what and how Google operates when building something from strategy to tactical. When I joined Humane, my Head of Software Program Management wrote a lengthy document which outlined week by week expectation of people I needed to meet, the culture of work, the state of our product development, areas where I was expected to be a value add; additionally, she would check with me every other day at the end of day on progress and questions I had. When the expectation is not set proper, I look at the 30-60-90 day plan document.
What TPMs can do is to help which ever department owns this document to add “Culture of Work” and other information such as how do we use the tools, what cross functional collaboration looks like and how execs make hard decisions. Culture of a place cannot be divined by a person just because they are senior. You must induct them into the culture. For me, majority of ICs failing to live up to expectations is because they don’t grasp the culture properly.
- has a phenomenal post on how you as an individual can build a proper first 90 day plan when you a join a company.
Before PIP, Do a Pre-PIP. Trust lost can be rebuilt but it needs patience from both sides. PIP or Performance Improvement Plan in our industry is all but a nice way of saying to your ICs “I suggest you start looking at a backup plan elsewhere.” PIP has such a monstrous impact to one’s mindset that rarely do I see people come out of them. If the IC who is struggling is your direct report, go talk to the people who work with your report on a day to day basis. Understand what is going on and try to gather specific actionable feedback. Then, set goals for each of the actionable feedback. See how the IC reacts over a period of 4wks-6wks.
We as TPMs can play the role of team thought partner. If a manager is struggling with something of this nature, work with them to think through all the options. You might know the work the IC in question is doing and can help add a different perspective; offer suggestions on how to help the IC improve by focusing their talent on the right projects.
Bridge the communication gap. Communicating upwards and sideways can be a struggle for many. No leader spends every waking moment in the minute details and no engineer feels great having to report every single minute or day up to execs. Developing the skill of communication is key to career progress no mater the role. This means written, verbal, formal, informal, the way you approach a crisis, the way you communicate during a kick off or all hands. Those who are able to communicate their workload and progress clearly are often the ones who stand out as people with their sh*t together no matter how deep under water they might be; that is my observation.
We as TPMs can help ICs understand the right way to communicate with various stakeholders because that is our job. Not only that, we can build better roads between teams and stronger bridges between leadership to help them understand what an IC is working on.
Example - If two engineers, one with 5 bugs closed in one week versus the other with 2 bugs, who is more effective? By the numbers you would say 5 but what if the 2 bugs are extremely hard to reproduce and critical to showstoppers. This is the power TPMs bring to the team - better communication pathways.
👉🏽 These are but few of my own observations. Do you have examples of how individuals lose trust over time? What would you suggest to do to help them regain it? When do you know there is no way to rebuild the trust?
Until next time 👋 !
Here is the complete list of essays in this series:
This week’s post — Pt 2. Pathways and Individuals.
Next week’s post — Pt 3. Roads - Trust between Teams.
Upcoming post — Pt 4. Bridges - Trust between Leaders.
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