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Hi, I'm Bob Ricca.Head of Product Design at ThreatQuotient.

UX mentor at DesignLab, ex-adjunct at Philadelphia University, ex-UX at AWeber.

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Roles and Expecations

Case Study Design Leadership

Recently I encountered a scenario between two frustrated colleagues.

In one corner, I have my boss — who runs all of engineering. He is super intelligent, he’s taught me a ton, and I have nothing but respect for him. For the sake of this article, we’ll call him Jim.

In the other corner— I have a direct report of mine. A product owner who is extremely talented, smart, and driven. For the sake of this article, we’ll call her Jane.

As in most start up environments, the lines between roles is often blurry. Most people are doing more than their fair share.

• • •

It’s a Wednesday afternoon. Jim and I are having our weekly sync, when the topic of Jane comes up. Jim is concerned that Jane is stretched too thin. His gut tells him that she may be having trouble focusing and has a problem saying “no” to others who are piling work on her plate.

During lunch that day, he had pulled her aside to share his concerns directly. He had nothing but good intentions and wanted me to know that the conversation took place.

• • •

It’s now Friday afternoon, time for Jane’s weekly sync. During our call, she mentions her meeting with Jim. She expressed frustration… not around getting direct feedback, but because she felt her work and intentions were misunderstood.

• • •

I personally take a bit of responsibility here. In the past, Jim had made comments to me about Jane’s focus. Knowing that Jane does a phenomenal job, I did my best to address his concerns… however, I guess it didn’t resonate.

I have an open and honest relationship with both of these people. I’m a straight shooter and I can definitely appreciate when other people are trusting enough to give me critical feedback as well. It’s a healthy dynamic.

I owe it to both of them to fix this…

At ThreatQuotient, one of our core values is “assume goodwill”.

Simply put… you’ll find that most people are trying to do what they feel is right with the information at hand.

In times of stress, it’s easy to fall into an unproductive spiral of negativity.

A lot of the time, this negativity comes from two root causes:

  • Lack of information
  • Misaligned expectations

In this particular situation both things were apparent.

• • •

How can we fix this?

I have a solid grasp on what Jane does. This doesn’t mean that others do.

I felt like it would be a good use of our time to tackle this head on…

Jane and I spent a half hour creating a document that outlines the following:

  • The high level goals of her position
  • Who she works with on a day to day basis and what she does

As we discussed each item, it became more and more apparent just how big her role was, how critical she was to the success of other teams, and how great of an asset she is to our company.

It illuminated the following things:

  • There are areas where, if she didn’t take action, nobody would
  • There are times where others would rope her into conversations or projects she didn’t need to be. She was generally a good sport about it, but the extra work was taxing and a source of stress. She also wasn’t thrilled that it would circumvent our process.
  • Her role isn’t cookie cutter. Because she works with third party vendors, she needs to take on a broader spectrum of tasks in order to be successful.

You see… it just so happens that a Product Manager, Jane’s counterpart in the product org, had recently left our team. This resulted in a bunch of orphaned work, things that still needed to be done, with no dedicated person to do it.

It also happens to be that our team structure is still maturing. We (I) haven’t pushed to refine the responsibilities within Jane’s role and therefore they are up for interpretation. Furthermore, the role of “Product Owner”, at our company, has a lot of overlap with the role of a “Product Manager”.

More thoughts on that at a different time 🙂

• • •

Resetting Expectations

The following week I set up a meeting between myself, Jane, and Jim. During this meeting we talked through each item on that document in detail.

At the end of the meeting we had reached a consensus:

  • Jane was happy that she was able to represent the true amount of work that went into her role. She was also able to shine a light on where she might need some help.
  • Jim was now privy to all of the hard work she put in on a daily basis. He was also able to provide some coaching on how to handle specific scenarios.
  • I was happy that the meeting went smoothly — (and didn’t backfire, haha). The air was cleared. Each party was able to empathize with each other’s perspective.

It was a win-win situation.

• • •

Summing it up

As I navigate what it means to build and lead a team, I find that the skills I’ve picked up from my background in design have helped me tremendously.

In this particular case, it was taking time to thoroughly understand the problem space (understanding perspectives, observing, and forming my own opinion), reflecting on my end goals (to alleviate my boss’ concerns and have an employee that feels valued), and systematically chipping away at the problem (taking small logical steps towards a collective understanding).

As we continue to mature our team, refining our roles and responsibilities is one step closer towards having alignment on what it means to be successful. If we can’t clearly articulate what our success looks like, then why should we expect others to know.

It’s another chance for misalignment.