Product Monday: How to check progress without being annoying?

I have been asked this question recently and I noticed it creates contention between product and engineering if not done properly. I thought it may sound like a stupid idea for a blog post but I also noticed for less experienced product people, this is a serious question and the things we might do on autopilot takes a lot of effort for people who are new on the job.

Typically you check progress during the standup or whatever progress tracking ceremonies you agreed on. You are not supposed to be checking every second hour unless there is a critical deadline or something urgent. Be mindful that you have finite credit with everyone around you and every time you interrupt or annoy them, it takes from this credit.

That said, things don’t always go as planned and sometimes you need a progress update in the middle of the day or want to know some specific detail for a stakeholder update. When this happens you have to interrupt someone and ask the questions.

I am a strong believer in focus and hate to interrupt people. The first thing I would do is to check the tracking boards to see if the info I am looking for is there. If not I will go to the team area and find someone to ask.

Picking who to interrupt is more art than science. Sometimes you know there is one person who will be able to answer your question and you will have to interrupt them. Other times you might pick the person who is assigned to do support and bug fixing for the sprint (not all teams do this). Engineering leads are also good interruption candidates since part of their responsibilities is to solve issues and answer stakeholder questions. Sometimes I pick the person I interrupt the least to distribute my credit consumption across the team. Other times I look for someone watching YouTube or Facebook and interrupt them.¬†And sometimes I go wander around the team looking confused until someone stops what they are doing and ask “Can I help you?”.

If you had to interrupt someone start by apologizing for the interruption “Sorry to interrupt I have to ask a question”. If it is not super urgent you can say “Sorry, Is it a bad time?”. If they say it is a bad time, ask when can you come back.

Once you clear the way, start your question with why. Starting with why makes people more sympathetic because they understand the reason for interrupting them was worth it. After the why ask your question “I am trying to do the budget math to update the VP and one of the things I don’t know is where we are on the switch to Spot instances. What do you know about this?”

Sometimes you might get an answer that surprises you like “we deprioritized it”. Don’t react. I repeat, don’t react. Follow up by asking “What are the reasons for this?”. Don’t use “Why?”. Be careful with your tone. There is a thin line between asking to understand and interrogating.

No matter what the engineers tell you, you are not supposed to argue with them on whether the progress makes sense or not. This is the engineering lead’s responsibility. If you go in this rabit hole you do more harm because 1) you are not the engineer’s boss to argue on why they are doing something and not the other. 2) you are stepping on the lead’s toe. The discussion on whether the progress makes sense should happen between you and the engineering lead. How to discuss such conflicts with engineering leads is something for a totally different post.

To Summarize

  • Check progress during agreed upon ceremonies.
  • Check project boards.
  • If you can’t find what you are looking for
    • Pick someone to interrupt.
    • Start by apologizing for the interruption.
    • Clarify the why to your question before the question.
    • Ask the question(s).
    • Listen.
    • Don’t get emotional or react.