The Strategy-Execution Deadlock

I’ve recently observed a specific product management/product engineering dynamic and I got to thinking that it’s quite common.

Observe: The engineers are clamoring for the product management to provide a roadmap or at least a high-level vision for the existing and future products in the next year or three. The product management is unwilling or unable to provide this information, but wants to know what engineering has been doing recently, i.e. some form of a progress report that they can trade in to top managers to get a green light for the ideas and vision that engineering is asking for.

This deadlock can take any form from very amusing to very dysfunctional, and I’ve personally seen this particular information flow break down on several occasions.

So how can this pattern be defeated? What would it take to break the vicious cycle? Read on to find out…

  1. Both product management and product engineers must make it a habit to sell their work. Truth be told product engineering is usually behind on this. There must exist at least some semblance of recurring “selling” of ideas by product management to product engineering, and of product milestones achieved by product engineering to product management. This is healthy, and it sets the whole communication machinery in motion. Turn this into something your organization practices, and the battle is half-won.
  2. What we are talking about here is strategic communications, and any mention of strategic communications tends to get frowned upon. It is also something that gets pushed aside or ignored when customers come calling, releases explode or some tactical issue arises that is both critical and urgent.  Regular, (semi-)structured communications between engineering and product management is neither critical nor urgent, so it gets the shaft. In the end, it takes a collective effort to schedule these exchanges and stick to the plan. It’s like brushing your teeth. It’s neither critical no urgent, but you are headed for disaster if you skip the routine for too long.
  3. Be aware of upstream and downstream stakeholders, and pick the right words for the audience. Communicating strategy is tough, so product managers tend to clam up about the long view because most roadmap discussions expose touchy subjects (e.g. will engineering headcount or team structure be affected).  Same goes for communicating progress. Product engineering can run afoul easily if it shoots from the hip about the news, whether good or bad.
Feel free to blame me for only offering fuzzy, touchy-feely solutions. To this criticism I only have one response: Organizations don’t emerge from facts and numbers alone, they are built on relationships and trust, both of which are arguably in the touchy-feely category (at least if you choose to pursue that line of argument).  Healthy relationships are not exclusively fact-based. They are built on mutual respect and communication paths which matter to both parties.
So you think your organization might be affected by the strategy-execution deadlock? Do let me know in the comments.
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