Product managers constantly have to decide what to build next. This is challenging on two sides.
On the one hand, product managers have to get the real commitment of the development team for their decisions. As they have no formal power over the team they depend on the goodwill of the team members. Plus, it is only when the team really believes in the decisions that they go full steam. Having engineers who are on fire for a task is a huge driver for success.
On the other hand, the product manager has to get approval from management (or other stakeholders) for his plans going forward. After all, the company decided to fund the development team for a reason and the product manager has to understand this reason in order to make his decisions about what to build next. Many times an additional complication appears: management has an opinion or idea what should be build.
So how does a product manager best work in this sandwich?
In order to be successful, the product manager should get everybody on the same page. Quite literally. At XING we use a format called Auftragsklärung or ACE (Assignment Clarification Exercise). You can read more about the framework here.
The goal is to use all the (brain) power and insight from everybody involved; to manage expectations upfront; to get clarity of intent; and to create a shared context of understanding.
If done right, an Auftragsklärung creates an alignment of commitment. Like with all tools and frameworks, there is the danger that they are (mis)used as a recipe you adhere to formally. If that happens, tools become ideology. Ideology is dangerous and kills all true progress. Therefore, you have to understand the intent of frameworks (see the above paragraph for the intent of an Auftragsklärung). Rather than cooking to the books, you have to live the essence of the framework. How do you know if you do that? Whenever you practice the essence, everybody will notice that. For an Auftragsklärung, there are some indications that point towards that essence:
- The Auftragsklärung / ACE (Assignment Clarification Exercise) stimulates intensive dialogue. It has its name for a reason. It emphasizes the interactive nature of the framework. This demands a commitment of time and attention from everybody involved.
- Everybody has to strive for approval and commitment that is truly understood. Most of the times we do know where other people might not agree or where potential conflict exists. Those have to be surfaced and named. It is the duty of everybody to test for common understanding. When in doubt: ask and clarify. Do not assume (assume makes an ass out of you and me). This again needs time and attention. And trust.
- Make an Auftragsklärung as simple and precise as possible. Ideally one page. Max three pages. If it is longer you are not clear enough what you really want. And you are lost in the details of HOW rather than defining the WHAT and WHY. Again, this needs time, effort, and attention to detail.
- A good Auftragsklärung makes strategic choices and gets people out of the comfort zone. It says: our intent is THIS – and not THAT. We know the goal AND the constraints. In the output section the team sets itself a performance goal: we want that output by that time. And the outcome is defined by KPIs with ambitious quantified goals. The last two points get teams out of their comfort zone. They are necessary for high performance. At the same time, you need trust between management and team that the courage to go out of the comfort zone is not punished. You need a culture for learning and acceptance of failure.
- Lastly, the Auftragsklärung has to be seen as a living document. On a regular basis, you have to ask the questions: ’Has the situation changed’. Everybody has to be able to face reality. For this part, you need honesty and again a learning attitude.
Using an Auftragsklärung successfully takes a lot of practice. It is worth it.