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Dropping the Ball Explicitly

Internal Communication
Ownership
Fairness

5 February, 2021

Glenn Block, Principal PM Lead at Microsoft, reflects on the problem of accountability and how being explicit about what you can do helps with expectation setting and alignment.

Problem

Many years ago, I joined a large corporation in my first product role. I was a program manager for a new product. At that time, my manager tried to position me on a growth path, and I was given significant responsibility. Back then, things were more waterfallish -- we were on a three-year release cycle and would have to at once ship a release multiple teams worked on over a long period of time.
 

My manager made me our team’s representative for one of those large projects. I would have to attend meetings at the ship room where the status of the project was discussed. My responsibilities included recurring weekly meetings and some additional work in-between that was not large in volume taken separately but would require a lot of communication with other people.
 

Actions taken

When I was asked to do it, I accepted halfhearted. I had accepted the responsibility but did not commit to it. I was skipping some meetings and didn’t do things that had to be done at specific deadlines. There were things that required coordination with my team. I would procrastinate and then rush to try to finish them, which I was unable to do myself and backfired. For example, we had to complete a security analysis, which required that my team come together and look at the architecture for the pieces that we were building. I should have set up a meeting with the team sooner, and ended up scrambling last minute to get it done.
 

Beyond the fact that I was not completing the things that I needed to, worse was that I had not communicated to my manager or the stakeholders where I was lagging. Suddenly cracks started to appear and it eventually turned into a fire drill. My manager had to take me off the project and he had to clean up the mess I had caused so that we could ship the product.
 

The main issue was that I was not ready to commit to the responsibility my manager was asking me to take. I was feeling overwhelmed with the new role, and wanted to focus on learning the essentials. I reluctantly accepted to take on the work, without grasping the implications. I should have shared my concerns with my manager early and sought his help. I should have made it clear that I was not going to be able to do this work. Instead I continued struggling on my own and didn’t deliver. The whole mess I made had impacted my annual review. The learning moment came when my boss told me this: If you are unable to complete something that you have committed to -- for whatever reason -- ask for help first. If you are going to drop the ball, it is okay to do it, but you have to do it explicitly! I could have said months earlier that I was running into issues executing. If necessary, I could have explicitly dropped the ball. If I had communicated that, I would have been off the hook and it would have been my manager’s responsibility to find someone else.
 

Lessons learned

  • It is okay to drop the ball in terms as long as you do it explicitly. It is not okay to send mixed signals, float in ambiguity, and assure people that you will complete something that you will not.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whenever you encounter a problem or are in a challenging situation, ask for help. To this day, I am not clear why I didn’t ask for help early on. Perhaps it was my ego wanting to prove itself. You don’t have to know your reasons, but you need to ask for help.
  • Ever since this experience, if I am working on a project and I can’t deliver on it, I make sure to communicate that clearly. It is an opportunity to get help or transfer the responsibility to someone else.

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