How do you make hard decisions when resources are limited, and the future is not clear?Featured
Every year, I used to make a hiring plan. The plan was based on what I was hoping to achieve that year and what I needed to accomplish. I detailed how the teams should be organized, which skills I was missing, and how I would execute the plan. The hiring plan never got implemented as is because it was a plan, and reality had different plans. But one thing I knew for sure. If I had no plan, nothing would happen.One thing I kept doing is having the hiring plan prioritized. The motivation for prioritization was knowing that probably not everything on the hiring plan will be doable. I knew that we had limited budget for hiring and revenue forecasts we had to achieve and did not know if we would.But when I knew the essential role/s I needed to fill, I was laser-focused on what was most important.One thing that gets me super frustrated is when leaders cannot prioritize and make cuts in headcounts and features. Deciding what NOT to do is as critical as choosing what to do.How do you prioritize what to do and what not to do, knowing everything is important?It is best to make data-based decisions. For each headcount, you want to hire or feature you want to implement, define cost and benefit. What is the price of not doing it, what is the benefit of doing it? Put your emotions aside and look at the data. Make estimates based on what you learned and the data you gathered. For example, in my hiring plan, I listed all the roles I wanted to hire in the coming year, prioritized, and for each position, I detailed why I needed to hire this person for this role? (features we needed to develop or faster development cycle or technical debt we occurred). And I also listed the impact of not hiring this person for this role. (for example, we will not be able to deliver on time, or we will not be able to deliver all the features we promised, or we have a risk of outages due to technical debt)It is vital to get other perspectives as you may be biased.That will help you and your team prioritize what is most critical vs. what you can live without. It isn't easy to do that, and I know that because I have been in multiple situations where my teams were stretched thin, and the wish list was long. There is always a way to prioritize. It is painful, it is unpleasant, but it is necessary. Great leaders can cut things ruthlessly when they have to, and weak leaders say everything is essential and cannot decide what drops below the line. Going back to my hiring plan, When I was working on it, I always worked with my management team, got their inputs and feedback. Then I asked for my manager’s perspective on what they thought. Asking for feedback helped me be less biased and consider different perspectives I was not thinking about.How do you prioritize hiring or downsizing and get your team behind it?I have never worked on a team that had enough people. You never have enough people to do what you want, and it is the nature of growth. When you have more work than people, you are growing, but you want to make sure your teams are not overworking to exhaustion and burnout. As an engineering leader, there was always the tendency to prefer hiring more engineers rather than leaders. The challenge was that you created a very flat organization when your managers had so many things on their plate they could not function effectively. You created a team that is starved for attention, and that may lead to chaos.Prioritizing hiring leaders rather than more working hands is essential when your leaders do not have time to support their current team members. My rule of thumb is eight to ten direct reports, maximum per manager. Managing ten people is not easy, but it is possible for an experienced leader. Having fewer than four direct reports per manager may lead to too hierarchical organization. It may still be valid to have a small team if the manager is still relatively new and growing into their leadership role. When deciding on hiring and downsizing, I always recommend looking beyond your teams. What is the best for the company?When I was working on my hiring plans and then shared and worked with my manager and my peer leaders, I often recommended hiring elsewhere instead of growing my teams if I felt it was the right thing for the company. For example, I was in situations where there were no sufficient product managers. In that situation, hiring more engineers did not make sense. We needed more product managers so we will be able to get the direction we needed from the product team. While the engineering organization can operate that way, it was far from being ideal. Eventually, all the organization's functions have to be balanced, and that is what I mean by what is best for the company, not just your team.How do you communicate to execs what you cannot do and get them to support you?I do not know of any leader who was not asked to do more than they could. New leaders especially tend to please their management chain. A new leader may not be confident enough to say no, and will not want to disappoint them. However saying yes, is not necessarily the right thing to do. Your leaders would prefer to know what is not possible instead of finding out later when you do not deliver on what you promised. I always recommend being transparent, which also applies to your leadership team. New leaders also often tend to be overly optimistic in their estimates, always look at sunny day scenarios, and do not consider things that can go wrong. I remember at least one occasion when one of my teams committed to unrealistic expectations from the product team. I had to push back and explain to the product team why it was not possible to deliver what they promised. Reasons varied from lack of engineers, potential quality issues or lack of time or combination of all three.When you need to communicate a challenging message, it is essential first to know your leaders:- What is important to them?- How do they like being communicated to?- Do they like to receive all the details?- Do they prefer a high-level executive summary instead?- Are they data-oriented?When I had a manager change in one of my companies, it took me a year to build a relationship with my new manager and understand how they liked to communicate and appreciated. Depending on the people you work with, it may take the time or be faster but be aware that relationships and building trust take time. It is always important to ask, what do they need from you? What data is crucial for them? How do they like to work? What communication method is preferred on them?When you have a very detailed-oriented leadership team, presenting a high-level executive summary will not be sufficient, and you may find yourself in an awkward situation. When presenting many details to an audience who wants to know the bottom line, you may bore your audience and lose their attention. Know your audience, and speak in their language!When I had to push back on the product team, I had to deliver a challenging message. One of my teams committed to a deadline on a very strategic product launch for the company. I had to message the product leaders that we will not meet that deadline, that we have to delay the milestone in a quarter, and that we have to reduce the scope. I prepared for that meeting with data. I detailed the current status. In the specific situation, there was a lot of attrition, and there were many new hires. I explained why it takes more time to develop when the team is changing so much. I explained why we could not deliver on all the features (some were immature and needed more thinking with the product team). I presented a plan for what we can deliver and what are the suggested milestones. Surprisingly (As I was expecting a pushback) the reaction was understanding and agreeing with my suggestion.To summarize, leaders are always expected to make hard decisions that may involve: reducing, limiting, or freezing hiring, developing fewer features, delaying releases, etc. It is always important to:- Have a plan- Prioritize what are the must-haves and what can be delayed- Understand what is important to your manager and company leaders and how they like to communicate- Back up your reasonings and decisions with data. Always provide explanations to what are the implications of any hard decisions.- Think about the company’s best approach and not just on your own team.