One stressed product manager, and the magic number 3

Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be some sort of obsession with the number 3. Some of the greatest movies are trilogies (Lord of the Rings, no arguments there). Harry Potter had a Triwizard tournament. France had Three Musketeers. There’s a really useful liberating structure called Troika Consulting based on working in 3’s…  

This blog post is about a different trio that came in really handy in my time of need. The trio of a tech lead, a delivery lead and a product lead.

A daunting start

When I joined the Report Your Management Information (RMI) project in the Crown Commercial Service (CCS), I was overwhelmed with the amount of information I had to soak up in my first week. The backlog of the current sprint was large and complex, and the backlog for future sprints was a lot bigger. The size and complexity of the epics was pretty daunting.

Of course I had amazing colleagues to help me, like my delivery lead and our previous product manager who had handed RMI over to me with really helpful notes. But it was still difficult for me to operate at my usual pace. The sprint planning sessions were long and heavy going, and we didn’t always walk out of them with a shared, well-understood plan for the next fortnight.

Talking it through (a lot)

I resorted to my usual medium of support: having tons of conversations with colleagues outside of the project. (Special kudos here to my mentor.) What these conversations helped me to see was that I individually, and the team collectively, were suffering from:

  • ongoing uncertainty and unknowns (this applies to almost all IT things)
  • the sheer volume of outstanding work
  • the resulting fatigue from the above

What to do when it’s all a bit difficult

So after lots of talking and realising what the problem was, we decided to start implementing a quick and focused daily catch-up of 3: me (the product manager), the delivery lead and the tech lead.

The level of uncertainty and unknowns immediately became more manageable between the 3 of us, and we were able to communicate with different team members when we needed to based on these daily conversations. We regularly reviewed priorities together, based on what was most valuable (product), technically achievable (tech) and required/ manageable (delivery).  

The other thing we started trialling was having a pre-planning session ahead of the formal sprint planning session. This mostly focussed on the epics in progress, and what pieces of work needed to happen to deliver them. Pre-planning was led by the tech lead and owned by the developers and designers. This meant the team collectively owned the problem and actively looked for different ways to solve it.

This worked miracles! The uncertainties and unknowns were shared and reduced, and we started to define work in more manageable chunks from a technical point of view.

The team is still the unit of delivery (but the trio really helps)

The trio doesn’t replace the team as the unit of delivery. Far from it. The trio acts as a shield for the team that reduces the noise and facilitates better and clearer decisions.

Finally, I want to thank everyone in the combined CCS and dxw digital team for working REALLY hard and making the project a success, from such a challenging start.

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