January 17, 2006 spout

PM Skill #6: Be The Team Mom

In an ideal world, a PM would be able to get together with their team, lead the discussion til everyone agrees what they’re going to do and while they’re doing it, hang out on the beach answering the odd question on their smart phone til the work is scheduled to be done.

At Microsoft, we don’t live in an ideal world.

Instead, we have roving bands of PMs prowling the halls looking for resources, trying to get things done. Because this is an accepted part of MS culture, people actually listen when a PM shows up at their door to pitch their idea and ask them to help. And, so long as it fits into the broad goals they’ve set up with their boss and their other commitments, and it’s more fun then the thing they’re supposed to be doing, they often say yes.”

This means that folks on your team often have multiple commitments that they have to decide between. It’s like when you get married or close friends, you’re going to have more than one family to visit at Christmas time. However, you have to put your blood relatives first, making them your top priority and squeezing in the other families when you can, e.g. Christmas Eve Eve.

As a PM, you have to know what the blood relationships” are for each of your team members. Are you their second or third family? If so, you have to take Christmas as celebrated on.” However, if they’re in your first family, then you take top priority and you should feel free to act like their mom.

Traditionally, it’s the mom’s job to make sure people are healthy and happy (doing stuff they like), making sure that they’re eating right (getting pizza during late night coding sessions) and that they’re getting special treats when they deserve them (public announcements praising their work).

Likewise, it’s the mom’s job to remind them of their chores (their task list), check their report card (make sure their tasks are up to the quality bar) and to guilt them when they forget Mother’s Day (keeping up with the schedule).

As the PM, you’re the team’s memory, the catch-all for crappy tasks nobody else wants to do and the one that makes sure everyone is working well together. You’re the glue and the conscience. If the teammates on your team aren’t waking up thinking of tasks you want done and going to bed hoping they’re making good progress on your tasks, then, according to MS culture, that’s your fault.

So, make sure folks are unblocked and happy, but also make sure they’re doing what you consider their top priority and that they’re doing it right and one time. Trust that they’re doing what they should be, but make sure they know what you think they should be doing and that they’re doing it right.

The downside is that such a world doesn’t scale without PMs at every level, but that’s why MS has PMs, Lead PMs, Group PMs and Product Unit Managers, all of them acting as the mom for their families.