Illustration by MUTI
Big Ideas

CEOs: Check Your Communication Channel with Engineering

At Mindtribe our teams meet every week to plan their work for the week. Every stakeholder—from customers to the executive team—has a chance to provide input once a week.

The idea is that once all the voices are heard, the team can identify the highest priority work for the week. Then the engineering team is never more than a week off of working on the most important things.

After a recent meeting, the engineering team was working hard to respond to some new input from the executive team. Having visibility on both engineering and executive levels (while the engineering team did not), I could see how hard the engineering team was working, but how much the team appeared to be spinning their wheels to the executive team.

Once we identified this issue we actively resynchronized everyone as quickly as we could. But it reminded me how often communication channels from the CEO to an engineering team go totally unchecked.

A Game of Telephone

Especially within large organizations, communication from you, the CEO, to the product development and engineering team, is a game of telephone. You trust your VPs, you’ve made your message and priorities clear to them, and your engineering team is working hard.

But do you know if they’re working on the most important things? Is every week of effort being spent as wisely as possible? This is worth a reality check, especially after you’ve given new input or direction, since product development is typically one of the least understood yet most important aspects of your organization.

To many executives, product development happens over there. If it’s not clear to you exactly what’s going on over there, it should be. Here’s how you can take a first step to check your communication channels.

One Way to Check Your Channels

Whatever the size of your organization, ask whoever is guiding the engineering work to summarize the highest priorities for the engineering team. If the answer is fuzzy, your input is probably not making it through to ensure the engineering team is working on the most important things. Their current activities should directly fall out of your highest priorities (ideally established by incorporating the voice of all stakeholders, including your customers).

As with a game of telephone, the larger your organization, and the more layers of management you have, the more likely the activities of the engineering team don’t match what’s best for your organization and your customers.

Where Does Communication Go Wrong?

We’ve found the highest potential for this disconnect to happen–for your input to be misconstrued between layers of your organization before it reaches engineers–is when there is an impedance mismatch. That’s engineering-speak for fundamental physics preventing all the energy from getting through when being transmitted from one thing to another. In the case of technology product development, this typically happens when there is a lack of shared technology and engineering perspective between layers of management.

Consider the communication channel of CEO → VP → project manager → engineering team. A VP represents your voice of the business to the project manager. The project manager then translates business priorities into the most important engineering activities. The less technical perspective the project manager has, the less possible it is to map your organizational priorities to the most important engineering activities.

What To Do About It?

Obviously there isn’t a one-size-fits all answer, so if you find any loss of continuity in your communication channel you have to address it case-by-case. However, one  generalization we’ve made is to give every layer of management the best technical perspective possible, so there is minimal loss in translation from your message as CEO all the way to the engineering team.

Ideally, in the above example, your VP and project manager both have excellent, relevant technical experience to provide the highest quality translation of executive-level input into the most important activities for the engineering team, and relevant engineering issues having an impact on your organization make their way back to you. That’s a good communication channel.

That said, in actuality the most common source of improvement we’ve found is to avoid having project managers without first-hand, relevant technical experience sit between the engineering team and the voice of the executive team. There is no way someone without a keen understanding of the product itself and the engineering challenges involved can ensure the engineering team is actually working on the most important things amidst a changing backdrop of continual new inputs from the executive team.

In short, choose project managers with the most relevant technical experience possible.

And an Even Better Way

If that’s anticlimactic and you’re already doing that, we’ve found this to be an even better way to give your project manager technical perspective: give your project manger engineering responsibilities. If the goal for the most effective communication channels is the best technical perspective possible, there’s no better way to obtain that perspective than immersion in the actual engineering work.

This goes against your intuition. Even if your project manager is technical as we’ve suggested is a good thing, he or she doesn’t have time for engineering, you say?

The trick is to minimize project management overhead. We’ve had success doing this by doing engineering work a specific way and enabling a team to be self-organizing to the maximum extent possible. The project manager is then freed up to do some engineering, which results in the best technical perspective possible. The project manager communication layer is now rock-solid because he or she has incredibly good technical perspective.

(This project management role is actually different enough from that of a traditional project manager that we call it something else—anchor—but that’s the subject of another post. Furthermore, with reduced reliance on a superhero project manager able to develop solutions to a continual stream of challenges case-by-case, you position more of your engineering team to play a project management role.)

What To Do When You’re Done Reading This

Take ownership of the communication channel all the way between you, the CEO, and your engineering team. Don’t assume engineering is a black box and isn’t something you’ll be able to understand. If you work toward everyone having the best technical perspective possible, your inputs will make it through to guide the engineering team most effectively, and you can get the feedback you need to ensure your engineering team is working on the most important things. And then you’ll sleep a little better tonight.