Seated at the table across from him, Toni made a grimacing face. The news was not good. Proman had started the weekly meeting by reminding key engineers from each of the study groups that resolving these issues was the top priority for the group. The group general manager had come by his desk just after lunch to inquire about progress. Proman could proudly report that a well over half the issues had received approval. A few tough issues were proving especially difficult.
“The best people are working on them right now,” Proman said, wondering to himself if he truly understood what they were doing. He had a technical background, but no depth or previous experience with these types of issues or this technology. What he did know, however, is that the technical experts lacked the systematic process abilities that he possessed. He had just observed arguments being thrown around the table like crazy with no apparent progress being made towards resolution. That’s when he jumped in.
“Let’s itemize the possible solutions,” he commanded. After the group posted sixteen possibilities on the board, he said, “Each of you now vote on your preferred solution.”
A wall of protest arose from the ten experts around the table. “We’re not ready to pick a solution.”
“I know. Your vote is not binding. But we do need to get a sense of which direction we need to go,” Proman persevered, trying to move the group away from endless debate.
The resulting marks representing votes were all across the board. “What do we do now?” Proman wondered to himself. Then someone suggested, “If I had a second vote, it would go to number 12.”
Another expert said, “Wow, I didn’t think we were allowed a second vote, but if so, I’d go with number 12 as well.”
Amazingly, the whole group focused in on number 12. But nobody had voted for it in the first place. Further discussion revealed that this was the “fantasy” solution that everybody liked but nobody thought was possible. The debate took a different direction and came up with a compromise solution. Proman had a smug look of satisfaction on his face as he left the room. He thought, “I sure as heck did not understand the technical ramifications, but if I hadn’t been there to direct them through a process, they would still be arguing till infinity.”
Sitting around the table with the team leaders, Proman realized that more “miracles” were needed. The status reports revealed that many issues were receiving endless debate. Each meeting he heard the same story, “We need more time.” Toni’s expressions revealed how frustrated she was with hearing this refrain. Proman studiously kept track of progress and came back each meeting to get updates.
Later the division manager came by his desk. “We need to escalate this process,” he said. “New product development is getting bogged down, and this program to resolve the issues is not making fast enough progress.”
Proman protested, “The right people are working the best they can.” He had observed his immediate manager constantly pushing on other teams when progress was slow. The effect was disturbing and demoralizing. The technical people needed discussion with their peers and an environment encouraging creativity, not commands from management. Proman came to believe that gentle prodding, questions, and suggestions would be more appropriate in these situations.
“In this case, I disagree,” said the division manager. “Please put together an escalation process. I may have to force some resolutions. Let’s review it together tomorrow.”
Proman was not happy about this turn of events but went to work drafting a process. The next day he received positive feedback about his proposal but also a number of modifications. “This could turn out to be very interesting,” he thought.
They introduced the escalation process at the next team meeting. The division manager, who was also the sponsor for this program, was present to demonstrate his support over the rounds of protest. “We have to move faster because our very survival in the market is vitally dependent on us introducing this new platform this year,” he admonished.
Subsequent meetings revealed how insightful the division manager had been. The teams did not lack for possible solutions. In contrast, there were multiple solutions available to them. However, experts across the organization had various reasons that they passionately put forth to support their work to date instead of requiring them to scrap that work and do something different. Some experts argued for the purity of the technology, ignoring a pragmatic approach that would be easier for the divisions to implement. No perfect solutions existed. Tradeoffs and business decisions needed to be made.
Proman jumped into this process with renewed vigor. He saw how putting limits on discussion time and making decisions by deadlines resulted in engineers moving beyond their positions to come up with the best compromises possible. They seemed to realize that if they did not do it, management would make unilateral decisions that may not be as informed or practical. It’s like having a big threatening stick but not using it. This would not work when technical creativity was required, but when business decisions were needed to pick among several options, management was better prepared to make these decisions than the engineers were.
Proman was thankful for the coaching his sponsor provided, especially when the sponsor peered over the cubicle wall and said, “Good work at the meeting today!” The pressure was still on, however, to get closure on the remaining deliverables required by the program.