Do You Know What Your Front-Line is Thinking?

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One of the problems in running any large, globally distributed organization is the potential disconnect between executives in HQ and the teams on the front lines. Frequently it is very difficult to know what’s on the minds of the individual engineers and managers, especially in remote locations where the executive in charge flies in for a few days every six months at best, holds a team meeting and flies away again after a day or two

A partial remedy to this disconnect are periodical reviews with every first line manager and team lead in the organization. These reviews go by multiple names, from Quarterly Business Review, or QBR to Deep Dive. Many executives hold them with their direct reports as a checkpoint to track execution, raise problems and float ideas. A much smaller subset run such review meetings with front line managers. In this post I’d like to share the format that worked for me in the past and which I helped others implement as well

These review meeting can take a number of directions, they can be quantitative or qualitative, and they can explore or review. My preference was to focus the meetings mostly on qualitative and exploratory side, for three reasons:

  1. Support organizations, especially large and mature ones, have a very strong, often excessive, metrics and reporting discipline. Key metrics are reviewed regularly and visible to all stakeholders as well as broader populations. Consequently, the likelihood of new discoveries is low and the opportunity to exchange ideas and unstructured information is lost
  2. Focusing on metrics, where the executive “reviews” the performance will invariable give the meeting a critical atmosphere and create tension. It will not encourage a free discussion and building of communication channels which the executives should value and the team managers appreciate
  3. Numbers and charts are the safe zone for many support managers, often they are used to divert meaningful communications. Instead, having an open, qualitative, discussion forces a different layer of communication without the usual crutches

So, rather then focusing on metrics and dashboards we can have the discussion cover several basic items:

  • Recent accomplishment – this was a chance for the manager to demonstrate the successes of the team. Review the workload and the ways it changed over time, as well as several important metrics [I know I just contradicted myself, but please bear with me]. This should be the only part of the meeting where numbers and metrics play a primary role in the discussion rather than an illustration to a specific point
  • What works? While the previous section focuses on the team being reviewed, this can be an opportunity to provide feedback and insight on other parts of the organization, the company and share success stories. Examples could be any experiments the team has conducted, an initiative they set in place, and so on.
  • What doesn’t work? Surprisingly, this proved to be the hardest part of the meeting for many managers. There were attempts to rename it [e.g., “Things We Can Improve”], non responses [“I really can’t think of anything”] and more. But, for me, it was an extremely useful part of the meeting, for two reasons: First, it gave me a perspective into the difficulties the teams were facing, and second, it allowed me to understand how the managers functioned in a slightly stressful situation
  • People and development plans – a key part of every executive’s responsibilities should be the development of every person within the organization. It is easy to focus on individuals who stand out in one way or another, high-flyers, troublemakers and extroverts usually stand out. However, reviewing every individual in the team, even briefly, can provide additional insight into the team’s chemistry and all the individuals within it. Frequently this is the opportunity for the managers to voice concerns that otherwise do not make their way up the organization.
  • Anything else – ensure there’s sufficient time where the managers have the opportunity to discuss any point they feel they should but had no opportunity earlier in the meeting

Some helpful guidelines:

  1. Provide guidelines for preparation – ask the managers to take sufficient time to prepare, consult with their own team members, peers and direct manager
  2. Allocate sufficient time, between 60-90 minutes for every meeting
  3. limit the amount of paper or slides permitted. For example, require that each of the above sections be limited to a single slide, with 4-6 bullet points in each, otherwise you are doomed to death by powerpoint.
  4. Be prepared with questions, an understanding of the people and environment the team operates in and a good number of questions. A good place to start is the notes from the previous meeting with that manager as well as a briefing with their direct manager
  5. Resist the temptation to solve problems during the meeting
  6. Under no circumstances make this a punitive opportunity. Do that even once and the information will spread through the organization faster than you think
  7. Take notes and action items, but do not assign them outside of the organization’s management hierarchy

A generic version of slides for support business review can be found on slideshare

In summary, use this as an opportunity to learn more about the organization and, mostly, its people and the opportunities you can use to help them develop individually as well as increase the capabilities of your entire organization

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