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Putting a Stake in the Ground

Managing Up
Managing Expectations
Leadership

25 August, 2021

Alex Oleinikov
Alex Oleinikov

Software Engineering Manager at People.ai

Alex Oleinikov, Software Engineering Manager at People.ai, argues that to secure support from engineering leadership, one needs to put a stake in the ground and deliver on the promises.

Problem

It is rather difficult to secure buy-in from engineering leadership for a research-heavy team. If a team is vague about the value it will drive in the future, ensuring funding or headcount is tremendously challenging.

It is indeed taxing to predict precise outcomes when conducting research. This is why many people choose not to, which is a ruinous mistake I’ve witnessed in multiple organizations. It would be far better to make an assumption and try to work to fulfill that assumption. An exemplary leader would put a stake in the ground and take a risk to deliver on that promise. If you don’t make that promise, it is really hard to align the team around a coherent vision, as well as to get support from the rest of the org.

Actions taken

I am currently undergoing a similar process with my team. However, from past experiences, I know that it is not enough to set up a mission for the team that barely sets the direction. To secure support from leadership, I need to come up with a list of concrete promises. Therefore, we are developing a very product-oriented roadmap of what would be research-based deliveries in the future. That allows me to add more people to work on the problem, evangelize within the organization more consistently and draw more attention to the team and problems we are solving.

How does that look in practice? The assumption is: we will have features X, Y, and Z that will be powered by our solution and will be impossible to operate without what we will deliver. Those same features will give us an edge as a company. Will this happen with 100 percent certainty? No, but we will work hard to make it most likely, and we are willing to commit as an organization. Innovation always includes a certain amount of risk because it challenges the status quo. That will be documented and socialized within the company -- across multiple verticals and functions -- which will help us secure buy-in from a broader organization.

If I would put myself into the shoes of leadership, this approach would even look more persuasive. I can understand that it may sound too bureaucratic for startups that tend to favor the shot-and-missed approach, but the more a company grows, the risk inherent to that growth increases. From a leadership perspective, resources will be handed over elsewhere if a team cannot promise any concrete deliveries and instead commit to providing vague, merely directional input.

Lessons learned

  • If you have an abstract mission statement, the conversation about staffing, funding, or general support from leadership will also become abstract. That will make it hard to ask for headcounts, finance, or anything else you will need for your team.
  • Innovation implies risk. In our case, the very nature of research doesn’t allow us to guarantee the results, but we can vouch for the most likely outcomes.
  • It is a comfortable spot not to be forced to make any commitments in terms of deliveries. Yet, it is deceptive, counterproductive, and discouraging. Essentially, it doesn’t lead to anything. Even if it means encountering a lot of uncertainties, taking a risk is worth it. If you don’t take the risk, you have nothing to fuel the development process.

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