The conference room feels crowded. The tech side and the business side are meeting. This is supposed to be just another installment of their regularly scheduled update get-togethers, but word has gone round that something is not right. So everyone has entered the room on full alert, armed to the teeth psychologically. Half the chairs may be empty, but the room feels filled beyond capacity.
If you have ever worked at a tech company, you have been in this meeting. If you have spent your whole career on the Street, this kind of meeting is hard to imagine. There is just no common analog on the Financial side. Of course everyone has been in a tense meeting of some sort at work. But on the Street, there seems to be far less of these routine meetings. If you are in a branch of Finance that has a lot of meetings, they tend to all be gladiator matches. In Tech, or really in the entire corporate world, the day is made up of meetings, and 90%+ of these are routine. So when the “Big Update” meeting comes, there is an added dimension when something is perceived to have gone wrong.
Serious meetings, and this is a Serious meeting, typically have multiple parties sitting at the table. So it is not just Tech and Business. The Tech side often has the people who design a product and those charged with actually getting it to work – so Design and Operations and Quality, or Engineering and Production. The Business Side has Sales, Marketing and maybe a Product Manager or some finance people as well.
Usually, there is a flow. The product moves from Design to Operations to Marketing to Sales. In this meeting, something has disrupted the flow and that leads to a Cascade of Change. For Example, the Operations people have a problem. (This happened to me a few years ago in a particularly memorable way, so I am going to pick on Ops, but I have been in meetings that run the full spectrum of blame, everybody gets a turn eventually.) Operations has some issue and are going to miss the deadline that they had in place for a ‘long’ time. (Again, long depends on the product months for hardware, weeks for software.) This delay then ripples through the entire organization.
First, the ‘offending’ party tries to push the responsibility upstream. Operations could meet their deadline if Engineering could abide by some change. This is a non-starter, Engineering has already moved onto their next project. And that small change creates some other, Far Worse Contingency. Operations takes the hint and does not want to be on the hook for Far Worse. So the conversation moves downstream. Could Marketing abide by a delay of some time period? Of course this is problematic. There are trade shows, and press embargoes and positioning papers already locked and dependent on that original date. Sales provides no help either. Customers have already been briefed and changes put quotas at risk. We have reached impasse.
At this point, there is usually some neutral party who tries to suggest a compromise. Often, this is the person or team with nothing at stake in the conversation. They have completed their job already or have no dependencies riding on the outcome of this meeting. Couldn’t we just …
Solutions are bandied about. Depending on the politics of the organization, this phase of the Meeting can turn acrimonious. Has this problem arisen repeatedly in the past? Someone will be sure to point that out. Some companies have structured meeting protocols, so someone may pull out Robert’s Rules of Order and try to impose a formal structure for the conversation. (It feels like this is always someone from the Quality team, but maybe that is just my perception.)
At some point, the discussion and posturing ends. If the organization is well run, it is the Manager who puts an end to the conversation after everyone has vented. If the organization is not well run, then the Meeting can drag on for a while longer until somebody asserts their authority, or moral high ground, or just the loudest voice. Regardless, at some point the conversation turns to next steps.
This is where the Manager demonstrates their mettle. Really good managers work to avoid these Meetings, and usually they are the ones who spread the bad news ahead of time so that all the necessary people are in the room to help reach some Conclusion
Coming from my background in Finance, the Conclusion phase remains the most mysterious and unsatisfying part. If your job is to get deals done or to close trades or to publish some kind of research, you want definitive action. Clear steps to be taken. In these Meetings, that rarely happens. A few people may be assigned specific tasks to check out remote contingencies that could offer last-minute solutions. But more often than not, nothing definitive happens. Everyone leaves the meeting with a new status quo. There will be a delay. Engineering will maybe try to find a workaround. Operations will push extra hard, maybe taking 20% off the delay (which they may have padded.) The Marketers will adjust their calendars and craft new narratives for their various audiences explaining the new timetable. Sales will update customers and hold hands.
As much as we would like to see Managers come in and save the day, this is almost never the case. This is not Mangaers’ role, and those who set themselves up in this role ultimately come crashing down to Earth. Experienced, competent managers recognize that their role is guidance and planning. Again, I compare this to Finance where senior people can often contribute or compel Solutions. In large, complex organizations these kinds of diving catches do not happen. Instead, good managers need to anticipate changes by judging the effectiveness of their teams. Is the Ops team always late? Then the Manager budgets a larger buffer into the timeline for contribution. Does the Sales team always overestimate customer demand? Then the Manager is careful to judge down their estimate when making his Budget commitments. These are ‘long-term’ practices not last minute actions.
For this Series on Intersections, I said that I want to tie Management Practices to Investing Decisions. Here, the lesson is that good Managers can be discerned by their ability to role with the punches. To outside investors, the company that regularly misses its earnings Guidance is demonstrating that Management does not have a good feel for the teams they are ostensibly managing. For Executive Teams making internal investment decisions, the goal should be to pick managers who have encountered major setbacks and comeback to tell the tale. The point being that there are few clear-cut situations. Nothing ever executes precisely to plan. Management is less about getting all the trains to run on time and more about making trade-offs and keeping good notes. The Notes part is especially important because this meeting is going to happen again. And again.