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Is your PUM a bum?

 At the risk of insulting some of my wonderful, former bosses, I think most product unit managers (PUMs) are bums. They pace the hallways, spewing crazed, detailed theories of how things should be—completely out of touch with reality—while living off the kindness of strangers who work in nearby offices. What value do they bring? What purpose do they serve?

Eric Aside I certainly don’t want to insult bums with this comparison. Only a fraction of bums are mentally disturbed. Many live independently in the life they choose. As for PUMs, keep reading…

PUMs are the first level of managers truly removed from any real work. They don’t write the specs or the code or the tests or the content. They don’t localize or publish or operate or design. They just manage the people who do, along with their budgets. Managing multiple disciplines and their budgets is challenging, but so is dealing with a disconnected, delirious, and demanding boss. Neither should be a full-time job.

Eric AsideKudos to a former team member, Bernie Thompson, who suggested this topic and now runs an interesting site on Lean software engineering with another former team member, Corey Ladas.

The man with a plan

Of course, your typical PUM will tell you he serves a critical role. For convenience, we’ll name him “Clueless.” Clueless spends hours in meetings discussing business development strategy. He fosters key strategic relationships with partners and customers. Clueless discusses these strategies at his staff meetings and at off-sites. He presents his three-year strategy quarterly to his boss, VP, and overall team. “Strategic planning is critical to our success,” claims Clueless. “Now all we need to do is execute.”

And yet, Clueless seems somehow detached. Perhaps it’s because he isn’t involved with the day-to-day struggles of the team. Perhaps he doesn’t receive enough information from his staff. Perhaps he’s more passionate about being a PUM and a leader than he is about the actual work. Or perhaps he’s so wrapped up in some abstract strategy that the means of shipping the product seems superfluous. Clueless had it right when he said, “All we need to do is execute.” The trouble is that he left himself out of the equation.

I can’t wait to operate

Every business plan has two sides:

  • The strategic side What are we going to accomplish, for whom, and when?
  • The operational side How are we going to accomplish it?

Clueless has the strategic side covered. For someone who isn’t going to do the work, the strategic side seems more fun and relevant. Setting a strategic vision is important and must come from the top, so Clueless feels wanted and needed when he focuses on strategy. As for the operational side—well, he can leave that to his competent staff.

But theory without application is merely self-gratification. Architects who don’t stick around to solve issues when the building is built or the software is coded are soon marginalized. And strategists who ignore the operational side become nothing more than figureheads who can’t understand why the strategy isn’t working out the way they planned. In other words, they become Clueless.

The devil is in the details

The strategy is set; yet six months into the project Clueless can’t understand why things are already deteriorating. So Clueless starts attending all the meetings, asking questions, demanding results, and driving his staff and his team completely insane.

Micromanagement can get the job done if Clueless is sufficiently obnoxious and amphetamine-rich. However, he will be despised and with good cause:

  • No one likes to be treated like a baby. Clueless has a good staff; he should let them do their jobs.
  • Everyone curses the bottleneck. When Clueless gets involved in every aspect of the project, all decisions must go through him and he becomes a factor that blocks progress.
  • Opportunities for growth dissolve. Clueless is taking on all the decisions and all the risk. He’s shut out everyone else from stepping up, while he gets all the credit. Yay, Clueless!
  • The big problems are left unresolved. By focusing on the details, Clueless sidesteps the big problems related to how the team operates and he leaves them broken. The entire team becomes dejected and demoralized. Ignore improving the engineering system and the entire project is set up for failure.

There’s a better way for a PUM to drive a team to successfully execute on a strategy. It’s called an operating plan.

The rules of the road

An operating plan describes how your team is going to execute on the strategic vision. As a PUM, you don’t need to lay out all the details and make all the decisions, but you do need an operating plan that will adapt and adjust as the project iterates toward the desired goals. Just like the strategic plan, the operating plan should be built by the PUM in conjunction with her staff. Before the strategy is finalized, the team leadership needs to know how they’re going to implement it.

For a product unit, the decisions are around people, processes, and tools. Here is a sampling of the kinds of questions you want answered:

  • What will your org look like? Who are the leads? Who are the feature teams? Who are the experts and architects? What is the succession plan if people leave?
  • What processes are you going to follow? What are you going to do better this time? What’s your scheduling process? What are your quality goals, and how do you intend to hit them? How will decisions get made for triage and changes to the plan?
  • What tools will the team use? What’s your build system? What improvements are you making? What languages and components will you use? How will you automatically and objectively measure your quality goals and give the team feedback on its status?

When an operating plan is in place, team members can easily get the information they need to get on track and stay on track. The PUM can quickly understand the status in context and know where to focus her attention and direction.

Back on course

Both the strategic and operating plans will need adjustments over the course of a long project, but the team will always be in a position to succeed. That’s because the strategic plan provides the vision and priorities that tell them where to go, and the operating plan provides the goals and limits that tell them how to get there.

People who do the real work, like you, often complain about not getting management support for making improvements or doing things right the first time. Well, were those improvements part of the operating plan? Is your PUM holding the team accountable for executing on that plan, or is the team only accountable for shipping all the PUM’s favorite features on the date he told his boss? Don’t just complain—point out the gap and take action.

Is your PUM a bum? Does he just provide strategic direction without also setting clear goals and limits? When things go wrong, does he become Clueless? If so, it’s time to get your PUM to step up and define not just what he wants done but how he wants it done. Provide him with your guidance and wisdom. Help him make good decisions about what team goals to measure and what tools to use to drive your success. Then your PUM won’t be a charity case, and you’ll have all the support you need to do things right.

Eric AsideSix years later, PUMs are practically a thing of the past. Divisions that used to be collections of small, related product organizations are now single, large functional organizations. It started in Office and then spread to Windows, Developer division, Dynamics, Windows Phone, Bing & MSN, and most recently my own division, Interactive Entertainment. The only large division left with PUMs is Windows Server, which I’m guessing will change within a year. I discuss the shift to functional organizations and what it means in Are we functional?

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