Taking the reins: how to get direction when management doesn’t provide one

One of the biggest sources of frustration for product teams are the people in charge. Even though it may sound like it, this article will not be about bashing management. Leadership is difficult. Dealing with humans is non-trivial. It is hard to find good leaders.There is a reason why so many books on leadership exist. Nevertheless, those of us working in product development often have to deal with the consequences of insufficient leadership. We have to play the hand we are dealt.

If it’s not going well, there are two ways that managers cause frustration for product teams. The first are the leaders that are unable to give any direction. That shows in the inability to make decisions, a tendency to change priorities, and the lack of guidance via goals or a vision. The second source of frustration is management that – sometimes rightfully so – doesn’t trust the product team or its leader. This shows in the tendency to try and control the team. Frequent feature requests, direct contact by leadership to the team members to micromanage their day to day work, and a high concern with story points, velocity, burn down charts, etc. are typical in this instance.  

There are of course more serious manifestations of bad leadership – perhaps most importantly a lack of care for the people – but I am focusing on those that most frequently are a source of frustration for product teams. Those that we have to deal with. 

Today, I will cover my default strategy to overcome a lack of direction. The next article will cover tactics for dealing with management that has a tendency to meddle. 

The Backlog is a bi-weekly newsletter about the undervalued and overlooked in modern product development. It covers product development, self organization, and productivity. I include methods, books, and write about my own experience. The target audience are Product Owners, Scrum Masters, Developers, and project leaders. The Backlog is about getting the most out of product development.
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Overcoming a lack of direction by taking on leadership responsibilities

One of the most frustrating things to deal with is leadership that lacks direction. Those leaders don’t provide goals and delay decisions or don’t make any at all, sometimes leaving the entire organization in limbo. If they do end up making a decision it’s likely to change soon after. 

While this is extremely frustrating, it’s actually fairly easy to deal with once you overcome that initial frustration. My default strategy of handling this situation is taking on those responsibilities where leadership is lacking. 

In practice this means the team comes up with its own goals or takes on decision making responsibility, always based on the overall direction the company is heading. To make it official, you need to present the reasoning along with the proposal to management and get their green light or change it according to their feedback. This is extra work but it has benefits. 

The team gains an understanding of how its work fits the company context. You also demonstrate that you are taking the bigger picture into account and are trying to do what is best for the company. You are willing to go the extra mile taking on things that are normally not in your responsibility. All of these are great at building trust and will in the long run help make the team more independent because management will meddle less.

In taking on leadership responsibilities two things are key: understanding the business context and documenting decisions. 

Documentation and business context

Documentation is important because leadership that lacks direction is often leadership that tends to frequently change its mind. You then need to be able to pull out prior decisions or agreed upon priorities and argue for staying the course. Thus, whenever leadership signs off on a proposal of yours make sure there are meeting minutes where it is documented. 

You need a decent understanding of what the business is trying to achieve, what its goals and priorities are, in order to make decisions or set goals on a team level that fit the overall company direction. Without this business context, you will likely end up with an incoherent strategy.

The good thing is that almost all companies have some sort of high level goal, vision or strategy that they communicate regularly. Ideally, these are broken down to departmental or team goals and strategy. If you are reading this article, this is likely not the case for you. In this instance, take what is openly communicated and use it as a base of reasoning to determine what goals make sense for the team. 

How to easily come up with your own goals

In this context, I want to briefly go into details and talk about how to go about creating your own goals. As mentioned before, ideally company goals are regularly broken down into departmental and team goals. If management doesn’t encourage this, you can do it yourself. 

Pick a technique for documenting your goals. OKRs are good but SMART, CLEAR, or whatever other acronym you may find also work.

Now, take the overall company goals and determine how the team can best contribute. What does it need to achieve in order to move the needle? If you are having trouble understanding what the overall goals are or choosing between several options, don’t hesitate to involve a leader and get some early feedback. (Delivering small increments and getting early feedback is always a good idea.) Make sure the goal is an outcome, not an output. Once you have settled on a goal, determine how you will measure progress. Ideally, you should use leading indicators that allow you to assess product changes without much delay. 

Once you have a goal and how you want to measure it in place, present the entire framework to leadership, explain your reasoning, and have them sign off. (Btw, at that point you are already halfway there to making data driven decisions.)

The same process also works for making decision or coming up with a vision or strategy:

  1. Understand the business context
  2. Come up with a proposal for a decision/vision/strategy based on the business context
  3. Present the reasoning and the proposal
  4. Document the decision

How to deal with frequent change of priorities

Finally, maybe the most frustrating consequence of a lack of direction is a frequent change of priorities. It’s a surefire way to destroy motivation. Especially, since ít often seems as though the change in priorities comes just as the team is gaining some momentum. Since I already wrote about dealing with constant change of strategy or priorities, I won’t go into too much detail here. 

What has worked for me in the past is publicly fixing priorities at least for some time (quarterly, for example). Ideally, this happens in some big meeting and the results are ceremoniously communicated across the organization. This makes the strategic direction feel more real and the barrier to changing it increases.

Here is an example of how it worked for us, from the original article:

At one point in time, we struggled with frequent strategic shifts. Just to paint a picture: we once conducted almost a week of workshops with five teams to create a plan for the upcoming year. We also created a detailed plan for the coming months, only to completely throw everything out of the window a week later because priorities changed. 

After that, we successfully negotiated a process that fixed priorities for one quarter (although it took some time to get there). In the middle of each quarter, the planning process began for the next one. The Product Owners worked with the leadership team to define a list of priorities for the upcoming quarter. Then, the teams conducted high level estimates of the features, and produced a time based roadmap with estimated dates. We presented the roadmaps causing a final round of (mostly) minor adjustments. Finally, leadership presented the plan to the entire company and the teams went into execution mode. 

There were still changes in priorities but they were mostly minor or due to truly extraordinary circumstances. I believe this process and the public announcement of the plan created a psychological barrier that helped prevent the chaos from before.

Four steps are the key

There you have it. Overcoming a lack of direction is really not that difficult if you are willing to take on that responsibility yourself. Gain an understanding of the business context, come up with a proposal, present it in front of leadership, and document the approval. Keeping these four steps in mind, you should be ok. This is the good news. 

The bad news is that overcoming the second consequence of bad leadership, a lack of trust, takes more time, although the solution is also not rocket science: communication. How to go about this, though, is a topic for another day.