One challenge for tech companies is getting product managers and engineers to work together.
Many have adopted a methodology called Agile. They use software — Jira is among the better known — and organize work around “scrums”, which are meetings.
I think of Agile as the modern Six Sigma, for those who remember Jack Welch’s management philosophy at GE. It’s a framework with arcane terminology to get people to do what they should do naturally.
Here is how a Google search defines Agile: “a way to manage a project by breaking it up into several phases. It involves constant collaboration with stakeholders and continuous improvement at every stage.”
Here is the version for Six Sigma: “a method that provides organizations tools to improve the capability of their business processes.”
I worked as a product manager coordinating engineers for 16 years and there is no question the adoption of Agile methods helped improve collaboration. The main benefit was a structure for engineers to meet with other stakeholders, including product managers.
That said, collaboration tools only get you so far.
I was reminded of that working on a project with an engineer named Joshua Bambrick, who specializes in machine learning and natural language processing.
The project required some colleagues to provide feedback (what’s known in AI as annotations).
One challenge with the project, as with almost any human endeavor, was to get people to do what they agreed to do when they agreed to do it. People get distracted. They get busy.
Initially, Joshua didn’t get the volume of annotations he needed each week.
Then, he hit upon a solution. He added an element to the testing screen that counted annotations.
The screen showed how many annotations each product manager had done and ranked each person from top to bottom. He added a completion bar for the overall project.
To raise the visibility he also sent out a weekly email with some high-level observations.
He never announced his intention to do these things and he didn’t explain them, but he didn’t have to.
Almost immediately the product managers annotating the data picked up the pace. No one wanted to come in last. And everyone wanted the team to finish on time.
Not every culture would be motivated by that tactic. It’s definitely not on the Jira board.
The key is knowing what motivates your team.
You can tell people what to do. You can set deadlines. You can scrum as much as you want.
But it works best if you inspire people.