PM Raves Take 1:

On Being a PM I Want to Hire - STANDING UP for Real Release Dates

Recently I worked with a relatively new PM (currently leading his second project ever) who epitomizes my dream case of an engineer/developer-turned-project-manager.

This PM was presiding over a tough, long, complex hardware-software development project. It had it all: risky technology, cost reduction pressure, killer beta release dates for a key customer, make-the-company's-future trade show dates ....

In the midst of an already challenging schedule, he got wind that the sales VP was out there quoting an availability date to customers that was, oh, 2 months earlier than his stretch-but-still-doable schedule estimates said was in the realm of possibility.

In the past, this PM, a very nice and not that forceful guy, would have just sighed and lived with it and done the best he and the team could.

However, he has been in the PM trenches for a couple of years now. A big part of his learning has been that a key part of his PM role is really not so much about management but leadership—the responsibility to STAND UP. Standing up for reality, for the company being successful overall, for being able to ship a high-quality, truly "done" product when promised; rather than going for the short term win of an early sale followed by the long term heartache of supporting a product that is not ready, or the never ending fire-drills of dealing with upset customers if you can't deliver anything by the promised date.

So, rather than suffer in silence, he took a stand and took some action.
  • He took the issue to the chair of the weekly management team meeting.

  • He requested an agenda item to get specific management team agreement to public quotes of dates for shipments.

  • He briefed the vice president about this issue and the danger it could pose to the company's reputation.

  • He made sure the right people were invited to that week's meeting so that all the necessary people would hear the VP pound the table and stand up for the company's stated value of "satisfying customers by shipping high quality and not committing to dates we couldn't make without said high quality."

  • He prepared a brief but hard-hitting couple of slides that summarized the potential danger for the management team.

  • He went to the meeting and made his case.
Sound easy? Obvious maybe, but not easy. Was the PM scared? Yes, somewhat; he hadn't suddenly changed personalities overnight (or even over the last 2 years). Confrontation and conflict were decidedly not his thing. But he had developed a value system that wouldn't let him stand by without making a stink. And he had developed some courage to boot.

Was the sales guy upset? Somewhat—from a natural disappointment. He was just trying to stand up for the clamoring customers, and for his desire to get those sales for the company and hold off competitors. But he could also see the business case being made by the PM. (Engineers can do business cases? Wow! And yes, they can.)

Was the vice president happy? Yes, that the PM had brought it up before too much damage was done. And yes, that his whole team showed the ability to talk across functional lines and make the best compromise decisions for the business.

So how did it end? The management team agreed on the record, together, as to what dates would be quoted to the outside world at large. They also agreed to a couple of special cases raised by the sales guy—critical customers—would be added to the beta or pilot builds, so that they could have units earlier but with a strict understanding of their pre-release state.

Overall the meeting ended with a better understanding by all, a management team one step further along the path to cross-functional maturity, and the integrity of the due dates and customer promises restored for this program.

All because one guy cared, stretched, and ultimately took a stand.

Per the title of this article, he's someone I'll take on my team any day. He's the PM an executive will always be ready to hire. Why?

Here's how I summarize what it is about him that makes that true � which hopefully can help you make sure you and any PMs or team members who work for you are infinitely hire-able too:
  • The PM recognized the risk and ultimate danger to the company's reputation of something that many take for granted. "Sales will always try to quote early dates, but they'll get it when they get it." To this PM, it was not OK to take the risk that customers would be disappointed.

  • He acted as what I call a "vanquisher," not a "victim," of the salesperson's zeal. He saw it as part of his responsibility to ensure that the risk was addressed and took the steps to do so.

  • He took the time to express the problem in business terms the management team would "get" and be willing to engage around. He didn't whine about the "blasted sales person quoting bad dates." News flash: Executives often hate whiners and don't care to listen. Instead, he calmly and objectively stated what was possible schedule-wise and the concrete business dangers in quoting a date that couldn't be met.

  • He did the legwork to make sure the problem was truly solved. That is, he made sure the right people would be at the meeting to hear the vice president take his own top-level stand, join into to the discussion, get their concerns heard, and buy in to the ultimate decision after getting to hear all the reasoning � so that the decision would last past that meeting!

  • And finally, he was prepared to offer alternatives to address the sales person's legitimate desires to satisfy key customers and keep competitors at bay.
Team members and PMs thinking and acting as business people and risk managers and takers of important stands! I could rave all night.

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