Here's a scenario I see too often in organizations.
The product teams are supposed to work on several products “at once.” They have several goals for their work, not one specific goal. Why? Because the managers feel too much pressure to reduce the organizational WIP (Work in Progress). The product teams blame the managers. “Why do we have so much to do?” people ask.
However, that's not the entire story.
The managers haven't reduced the WIP because they have contractual agreements with some of the customers. Because of the contracts, the managers don't see how to reduce the WIP right now. If they can get the company through the next three months, everyone should be in great shape. (An alternative reason I see a lot is that the company needs to continue to release “old” products while waiting for the teams to finish the “new” product.) Besides, why do the product teams need so long to finish their work?
The situation doesn't end there.
The support team spends way too much time fielding calls from frustrated customers. So much time, that they have to hire three new people. Why do the customers need so much support? Because the product teams took shortcuts and didn't really finish the work.
Everyone's frustrated—with their jobs and with each other.
While the solution appears to be “simple,” as in “Reduce the overall WIP by managing the project portfolio,” that's quite difficult to do right now.
However, when people offer each other empathy, they often discover they have more options.
Empathy, Not Sympathy
When we empathize with each other, we put ourselves in each other's shoes. We can imagine the pressures that result in other people's decisions. (When we sympathize with people, we pity them. Empathy helps us understand why people act the way they do.)
If everyone here acted with empathy, the product teams might ask, “What's the first thing we need to do, right now, that would ease the pressure on everyone?”
The managers might work with the customers and say, “We thought certain features would take less time. We were wrong. Can we get an extension on our deliverables?”
In the case of “new” vs. “old” products, the managers might say, “Everyone on the new products. We will manage our customer interactions so they stay with us.”
And the support team might say, “We realize you're overwhelmed with work. However, the last few released features created a ton more work for us—and for you. Would you like any assistance from us before you release, so we find the issues before the customers do?”
And the more we are under pressure, the more we have trouble extending empathy.
What can you do? Start by saying, “No,” in several ways. (See Leadership Tip #3: Use No As a Complete Sentence. And you have more options.
Consider These Options
Since I don't know anyone who can mind-read, we can ask questions to understand and generate options.
The feature teams can ask these questions:
- Which product is most essential for us to finish now?
- Is there a specific goal we need to achieve?
- What can we drop for now and pick up later?
The managers might ask these questions:
- What are the chances of us getting through the next few months, retaining all of our people, and meeting all the commitments? (My experience says that too much work drags on much longer than anyone wants. The faster we decide, the easier it is for everyone.)
- Which work can we postpone to meet the most critical commitments now?
- How can we manage our customer relationships, so our customers stick with us?
- What can we do to ease the work for the teams?
And some of the support team members might offer to work with the feature teams one day a week to find and fix the problems.
Organizational WIP causes all these problems. Even if you can only reduce WIP at your level, see where you can narrow your focus and finish work.
Use Empathy at All Levels
Very few organizations have problems at just one level. More often, the difficulties permeate most of the organization. However, the more we empathize with each other, the more likely we can find several ways to manage our problems. And the more likely we are to succeed.
When you change your questions, you can change how people work. Especially when it comes to certainty and openness. (This article is based on all three of the Modern Management Made Easy books.)
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© 2021 Johanna Rothman