Program Management and the “Tough Conversation”

Recently, like all too many people these days, I found myself in the position of needing to find a new job.  Now before you give up on this blog I promise not to rant on about how bad things are; rather I’ll talk about a topic that came to mind while I was preparing for an interview.   You all know the drill; you plan your program, develop the specs and the team starts cranking on the development.  Then reality sets in and the program does not go according to the plan and the team has to adjust.  Most of the time the adjustments aren’t too big a deal; however, every once in a while you come across a whopper that not only has a major impact to the program but to the company as well, this is the “Tough Conversation” I am referring to. 

I was working on a project to deliver the companies next major platform.  This product was to be a significant step forward for our equipment and we needed it to leapfrog the competition.  We were well into Phase 1 (so the plan was almost fully baked and the product was specified).  However, shortly before we presented the Phase 1 exit the product manager and I realized that the competition was going to beat us to the punch and the product would not have the desired impact nor would it generate the necessary revenue.  The solution required a major redesign of the system architecture, which was a significant problem by itself given the cost issues associated with it.  However, the challenges here went significantly deeper since the redesign would require us to either delay the delivery by at least six months or drop an internal ASIC development.  We knew that we could not delay the product by six months and the subject of eliminating the ASIC effort from this program was both emotionally and politically charged, so we had to have the “Tough Conversation”.  The question I had to ask myself was; what is the best way to go about having this conversation in order to achieve the best outcome for the company.  Note: we knew that depending on which path was recommended the discussion would either end with the CEO and his staff or with the Board of Directors.  What I settled on was the following and it really tested my soft program management skills:

  1. Stick to the facts:  Remove the emotion from the discussion in order to evaluate the trade offs and come to what the data says is the best decision.
    • Address the issues not the individual:  At times you may need to let people on both sides of the debate vent but always bring it back to the facts before the conversation gets personal.
  2. Be sure you have the schedule, cost, and technology trade offs and impacts fully understood (in short lean heavily on your experts to get all the pertinent data)
  3. Identify the key stake holders at all levels and work with them:
    • This will likely need to happen in parallel with step four.
    • Ensure they are not caught by surprise in a larger audience.
    • Understand their concerns and inputs and bring them back to the experts for consideration.
  4. Work the conversation up the corporate ladder:
    • Start with the core team and key stake holders at that level, document the facts and come up with a clear recommendation with solid data to support it.
    • Next move the conversation to the functional managers followed by the executives.
    • Remember this is likely to be an iterative conversation so you may go up and down a few times.
  5. Don’t get married to any one solution:  Seriously, if you are married to a solution you are emotionally tied to it.  Remember, you are moving the issue up the ladder for a reason and as you expand the conversation new questions and data will come to light that may force you to change the recommendation.

The end result; this issue was taken to the Board and it resulted in a significant shift in how our largest products were developed.  The product was delivered very close to the original timeline and it managed to leapfrog most of the competition. 

Now for the really positive part of this whole experience and getting back to the whole economy issue.  I was actually asked at the interview about a difficult conversation I had to have and how I managed the conversation at different levels of the company, I relayed this story and whether I was right or wrong I got the job.  If you are out there looking for a job take heart, not only did I receive the offer I just mentioned I may receive an offer from a second company.  Given that I say things are definitely looking up.  Good luck and if you want to share your “Tough Conversation” experience I would like to hear it.

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1 thought on “Program Management and the “Tough Conversation””

  1. Hi Ed,

    Nice description of how to escalate an issue through an organisation in a balanced way. I’d like to see a 6th step in your process for “Re-factor the Recommendation”, as it looks like this was ongoing in the process also.

    Well done on finding a new job!!


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