Communicating when “fires” break out – “We are on it”

As software product managers, we often deal with cross-functional issues from time to time such as projects that fall behind schedule and now risk making a release, creative designs not ready for implementation, serious production issues that require immediate swats to be released etc. When such problems crop up, keeping your cross-functional team including your management team updated with the latest information is of paramount important. You can take two approaches to communication when such “fires” arise:

  1. Try to gather as much information as possible before you communicate so that you can include all the details of the problem and how you are going to fix it or
  2. Communicate immediately acknowledging there is a problem without revealing the seriousness of the problem and details of how you are going to fix it.

When substantial time is needed to gather data to understand the impact and quantify the size of the problem, I always prefer the latter. In an emergency, it is important to acknowledge that you are aware of the problem and to communicate the message “we are on top of it”. This way everyone (especially your senior management) know about the problem and can rest assured that folks are actively looking into it. Then, once you have gathered more information follow up with the details, options to fix the problem and the recommended solution. Instead, if you wait until you have all the information and good amount of time goes by, someone is going to find out, things get miscommunicated and you could spend more time trying to set things right.

Relate this to when tragedies strike – there is always a “first responder” team that appears on the scene immediately. Their job is to arrive first at the scene and take charge of the scene and start the data gathering process. As a product manager, you should be your team’s leader and part of the first responder team. On-time communication with the whole team is one way to gain respect and make you the go-to-person on your team.

Thoughts? Your experiences?

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2 thoughts on “Communicating when “fires” break out – “We are on it””

  1. I’m always a fan of the immediate acknowledgement when dealing with a fire, and two observations and thoughts from my own experiences putting out fires.

    1) How the message is delivered, and where it comes from, matters. When we witness a literal fire or emergency or tragedy, there is some sort of predisposed psychological comfort when we see emergency crews on seen, complete with sirens and lights and uniforms, and when they really take control of a scene as you mentioned. It feels as if that alone is telling us that SOMEONE is handling it, and that the “someone” is equipped to handle such situations. So much so that I believe we look for those visual cues in emergency. That’s not to downplay the importance and courage of Good Samaritan first-responders or volunteers – that can also be analogous to dealing with business fires. But if I imagine the same emergency scene, with emergency crews not donning uniforms or sirens or lights or using equipment that doesn’t stand out upon quick glance, it would probably appear and feel a lot more chaotic than it is.

    2) In the absence of communication and leadership, we often fill in the blanks, and especially with multiple groups of people all having side discussions and anxieties, this effect can multiply rapidly. A firm leadership response of “Here’s the situation, and we’re on it” can defuse a lot of anxiety and jumping to conclusions and get people focused on what they can do to help, instead of what the heck is going on.

    – Chris

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