It’s strictly business, adrenaline and ASAP

27. september 2018

I would like to share one very common mistake people make – taking things very personally.

It looks like you put yourself (or in extended version your department) into the center of universe and evaluate everything around from that standpoint.

As always let’s explore my own case.

It was my first management assignment on a project larger than 2-3 people. The project was an e-commerce statistics collection and analysis. I was assigned to be a lead of a customization team with up to 10 people. The team consisted of Oracle specialists customizing standard statistics reports for customers, who need to see figures above or different to standard. The outsourcing team in Ukraine was up to 40 people and we were a part of it. The customer’s HQ and team was in USA. I was reporting to both overall PM in Ukraine and Customization Lead on the customer’s side.

When I have joined a team there was actually some mess – the queue of customization requests and submitted defects was around 180. We had a good team so by putting the right process in place, we managed to get the queue down to 10 requests in several months. That means that upon receiving new request with priority mentioned, we were able to put it into queue and provide estimated time for completion and target date for release within a few days. Completing the task itself would be maximum 2-3 weeks depending on complexity and existing queue.

Just a small note – by going through backlog – over 100 tasks were identified as not needed any more, or “no one knows who needs that”. This is just a hint to keep your backlog in good shape, as Scrum says. Upper management rarely goes into details like this, so from their perspective going from 180 tasks to 80 was already a huge step.

Based on all of the above I was proud about my work and I was assuming our customer also valued it highly. Shortly, the Customization Lead on customer’s side, which I was reporting to, resigned. I assumed that was the plan from the very beginning. The organizational responsibilities of the resigned person were delegated to me. Business analysts were hired on customer’s side to clarify requirements from end users (companies using our statistics system for theirs e-shops).

Now the real story begins – one Friday, almost by the end of the working day, I received an e-mail from one of the business analysts addressed to the customer’s CTO (big boss, especially considering organization size and revenue) and me. I was added to an existing mail thread. In the initial e-mail, the CTO looked to be very angry and was complaining that exact very important task for customization was not completed for 3-4 month. At that time, we had top 10 and top 40 customers listed and the complaining company was on the list. Whenever someone from top 10 was going to stop cooperation that would significantly impact our customer’s business. The business analyst responded the CTO with something like “that have happened because NO ONE is managing custom reports”. The CTO responded to the business analyst, me and my manager in Ukraine asking something like “what the hell is going on?”

Well, as I have mentioned I was proud about my work results. My position was Custom Reports team manager. Customization leader on the customer’s side left some time ago. I started feeling very anxious. As a first step, I re-checked all available correspondence on discussed item. Original request for escalated report appeared in our queue 2 days ago and was put for estimation according to existing process. I assumed I was being unfairly blamed.

As I have mentioned, it was the first time I was managing a team of this size, so in other worlds, I still was not a very experienced manager. I really felt offended and my first reflection was to compose an angry reply and start arguing and defending myself. Still, it was late Friday, and our policies were to respond to e-mails received late hours the next working day. So finally, I decided to move it to Monday morning. The next two days were spent with brains on fire, thinking about the situation and preparing an angry e-mail.

At some point I called my brother – not to ask for a suggestion, but to complain about how things were unfair and share my “revenge plan”. People like to complain, agree? Despite being younger, my brother has good experience as a sales person for some known brands (not related to IT anyhow). His response surprised me. He reminded me of the “It’s Strictly Business” quote from “The Godfather” movie. He told me the following: There is a person responsible for cooperation with customers. He’s got a complaint from an unhappy customer. He needs to solve the issue and to prevent it from happening again. Besides this, he really doesn’t care about your personality and more likely, even don’t know where Ukraine is on a map. There is nothing personal in business. It’s Strictly Business! That calmed me down a bit and I start evaluating the situation less personally. The next day (on Sunday) I got a call from my line manager in Ukraine, who was a bit nervous. He had also read the e-mail from the customer’s CTO, and got anxious as well. I think he worried that I had responded something inappropriate already. But hey, I learned something new over weekend and I was smarter than 2 days ago ;). So I calmed him down and told him how I was going to respond.

On Monday, before the work day in California started, I had sent my reply.

From the initially planned “how much I did for the customer, list of excellent achievements of customization team and so on” the message had turned into practical things like:

  1. The request ”#” was originally received by customization team on “date”, request e-mail attached.
  2. According to official process, it was put on estimation to be done by target “date”.
  3. There are 8 other requests (list) in work right now. If we have to deprioritize one of them and start working on the new request, let us know.
  4. Please let us know if we have to provide more information about how the Customization team is managed and what processes we use.

I received a response earlier than I was expecting, just few hours later. The response was from the business analyst, who wrote the quote about no one managing the Customization team. And the response was …

“Yarko, hold on. We are talking about absence of a responsible person on our side that’s why you and your team are not provided with tasks in time …” I am not sure what I was happier about – my team was not blamed or I did not compose the initial edition of my response.

And two related hints I would like to mention, since both are applicable to this situation.

A good manager I was working with once explained to me, how human brains act in a feel of danger. In ancient times humans exist in survival mode. To escape a tiger or another predator, you had to perform over average or even over your capabilities. So to help people to achieve the impossible, chemistry was involved. Whenever a person feels danger, adrenaline is produced and released to the blood and you became much braver, stronger, faster and ready to fight. Challenges have been changed since that time, but adrenaline is still a help in stressful situations. But picking up a stone and quickly hitting a customer or a manager is not necessary a good solution in modern days. It is difficult to resist chemistry, but the knowledge makes you at least prepared. If you are able to control yourself and not explode immediately, try to breathe deeply. Oxygen decreases the amount of adrenaline. And the best method is time – chemicals simply will vanish till the next morning. If you can delay your response, it is better to “sleep” on it. Our proverb saying “morning is smarter then evening” is right reflecting this situation.

Another great manager explained to me what ASAP means. In an organization with very strict processes we were taught to respond customers as soon as possible. In other words, almost immediately to show we were always available and responsive. But what the manager told me was slightly different, but not necessary opposite. ASAP means As Soon As Possible he says. That means you should never respond before it is possible. And being not ready to send a valid answer is equal to not possible yet. That is not delaying the response, it is just about defining right answer before responding.

And again, the main thing – do not treat anything personal in business, try to figure out what the business really wants from you and comply – that should lead you to success.

Yaroslav, Delivery Manager