Avoiding The One Step Back

Teams, especially at growth companies, often have a pattern of taking two steps forward and one step back. Let’s explore how teams often unknowingly slip after growing and let’s explore ways to prevent that from happening. Only forward steps!

This Happens A Lot - The Setup

Let’s talk about my favorite pretend team, The Acme Widget Builders. It’s a cross-functional team with a product manager, an engineering manager, and a number of engineers. The team is operating very well and is growing with the company. Eventually the Original Product Manager has to hire another PM to manage the team, so the Original Product Manager can manage a larger group of teams.

About 6 months later the team starts to suffer a string of quality issues. Nobody really knows why this is happening, but it’s frustrating. The team starts to focus much more heavily on QA and gets back on the righteous path over time. However, a concern remains - what happened?

This Happens A Lot - The Diagnosis

After doing some soul searching about what the heck happened, you realize that the Original Product Owner was a Widget Whiz. They knew every single thing about the Acme Widgets, and, in fact, they were catching a lot of bugs when reviewing features-to-be-launched at the UAT phase. Herein lies the issue.

It’s not really the PMs primary job to catch bugs in the UAT phase. Actually, when the Original Product Owner transferred the team responsibility to the new PM, the Original Product Owner never mentioned the QA they were doing in UAT. As a result, the team lost a critical QA resource and never thought about how to counteract that reality.

Implicit Responsibilities

When team’s grow, explicit responsibilities are often transferred deftly and quickly as new team members join. However, implicit or unstated responsibilities often fall by the wayside. It’s not part of the official checklist, it might not even be part of the job, but the reality remains - if you’re filling a gap and leave without finding a replacement, that gap is going to show up as soon as you leave.

Furthermore, you might have an explicit responsibility that you do way better than expected. Handing off that responsibility to someone who is not going to fully fill your shoes (even if at first), is another form of creating implicit gaps on the team.

The Fix

When you transition a team that you were previously a leader in, take stock of the things you were doing that weren’t part of the official role. Consider things that you are disproportionately owning for the team. It can be anything: meeting running, architecture, QA, recruiting.

Then, find ways to do some of the following:

  • Let people know the gaps will exist. Announce the diagnosis.
  • Find ways to personally ensure continuity and resource the gap.