No Surprises

My cat EzriI have a rule that I apply to my cats and to my coworkers. *  It’s one of those rare circumstances when over-generalization actually works.

One of my cats gets medicine every day, and she likes it about as much as you’d expect a cat to— not at all. Every day we go through the same routine: I measure the dose, she runs, I catch her, I take her to the medicine, I give her the dose, she runs again, and we’re done.  After all of that she’ll be waiting for me on the couch, completely unafraid.  She always knows when the bad stuff will happen.

It took me a while to realize how that reasoning could be agile.

“Do you think you surprised them?”  I don’t remember what prompted my manager to ask that question.  I might have been talking about a problem I was having a hard time solving.  I might have relayed some tidbit I heard in a meeting.  I might have mentioned some test case that broke a new feature.

Whatever prompted the question, I did surprise my manager.  Here I had someone on my team who’s primary job it was to reduce risk and I surprised them with bad news.  I didn’t have to do that.

In fact, most teams have someone like this.  They usually have the title of manager.  They are the ones who are expected to know when things will ship, what’s keeping the team from shipping, and what happens if the team doesn’t ship.  They definitely want to know what might be a problem and how likely those problems are.

The question stayed with me.  I had a simple rule about what I should say in status meetings: if I don’t say something now, will I surprise my manager later?  I didn’t want to inundate my manager with trivial, but trivial information wouldn’t be surprising.  Thus the rule has a built in filter.

It was a few years later that a different manager asked me, “I know you don’t want to surprise your project manager.  What about the rest of your team?”

I was a little sad that didn’t occur to me sooner.  It’s not solely the job of people with manager in their title to mitigate risk.  It’s part of everyone’s job on the team, including mine.  Again, I don’t want to go on about problems that aren’t likely, but trivial information isn’t surprising.  It’s a different problem if I can’t figure out what my team thinks is trivial.

So now I try not to surprise anyone, feline or human.

* What can I say: cats get page views.