Eyes on the prize

Some odd years ago I was working with Bob and John within the same project. This was a particularly tricky one, where deadlines were set in stone and expectations were high. Bob was responsible for managing the product. Things like defining what we are trying to achieve, acceptance criteria and liaise between engineers and designers. John was the delivery manager. John’s work was around communicating with stakeholders how the project is progressing, identifying potential bottlenecks across teams and leading our Scrum ceremonies. It was a big initiative for the company, with around 10 engineers, across 3 teams.

It was intense and Bob wasn’t coping well.

Engineers were confused on what they needed to work on and why. It was stressful. John stepped up. He started doing Bob’s work. Throughout this period, John, and myself, were making it very clear to our superiors that this is not a sustainable situation. My 1:1s with my manager danced around the same topic throughout the project. The whole situation left John exhausted and mentally drained. He spent two months focused on keeping things afloat, while at the same time flagging the situation to his manager. John’s energy and drive were split.

It wasn’t too long after John left the company.

A couple of months later, I am back working with Bob and for the first time with Jess. Again, a pretty big project, with even more teams. Bob’s role is the same as it was before, while Jess is the delivery manager. The same happens. Bob’s attention starts to drift. People are confused. Work is not moving. My 1:1s became a deja-vu. Jess rises to the occasion and keeps the frustration to herself. There’s a clear difference between John and Jess. John’s irritation started clouding his judgement and it didn’t end up well. Jess flagged the situation once, but she moved on. Her mind was one hundred percent focused on one thing: get the project out of the door.

I am now having 1:1s with Jess. She remains calm, while I don’t understand why. In a way, it feels she is protecting Bob. But why? I get annoyed. Our relationship suffers. She remains calm.

Fast forward to today, I keep thinking about these two scenarios. And a couple of lessons from what happened:

  1. Bob was never the issue. Him leading these projects, which he couldn’t cope with, are his manager’s failures.
  2. After a certain point, it’s your job to solve problems on your own. Months of 1:1s with my manager were a complete waste of his time and mine. I was there to solve problems, but instead I was creating them. My manager had some influence over the situation, but it was up to me to deal with them.
  3. Asking my manager to solve an interpersonal problem was a gamble. I was risking my relationship with Bob over the success of a project. After the second project my interactions with Bob weren’t great and we couldn’t get over the past.
  4. Jess kept her eyes on the prize. She knew that complaining about the situation wouldn’t change much. She focused on the only thing that she could impact: delivering the project.

Jess did what was right for everyone in the team and the company.