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A fine balance
Sandeep rushed towards a conference room with his open laptop resting on his left arm. The laptop was sitting on his biceps while his fingers held it at the top. He was staring into the laptop while pacing. He was already a minute behind.
Bam! He hit someone walking towards him. The laptop almost slipped from his hands, but his thumb and his index finger managed to hold on to the top right corner of the laptop.
Sandeep looked at the other person, who was about to say something, but Sandeep didn’t have time for this. He re-balanced the laptop on his arm and walked towards the conference room.
“So sorry, folks! I had to attend to an important call, so...”
“No, no problem, Sandeep,” Surabhi said. A few others in the room looked at their laptops.
Sandeep sat on the only empty chair in the room before taking a look at the people in the room. He connected his laptop to the video conferencing setup before projecting his laptop’s screen on the bigger screen in the room.
“Shall we begin?” he asked, smiling.
Sri nodded, along with a few others.
“So, it has been 2 weeks since we kicked off the project. Though we’ve had some hiccups, I believe we are on the right track to speed ourselves up in the coming weeks and deliver on time,” Sandeep paused to see if there were any questions from within the room. Seeing no one speak up, he continued to get into the details.
“On the architectural review front, the team has locked what the product architecture is going to look like. On the security review front, our security team is doing a thorough investigation into all the government policies around the handling of such sensitive data.” His voice lowered a little bit – “On the engineering front, the team wanted to deliver its first milestone today, but it has been delayed by at least a week. We discovered a few dependencies and 3 people were on leave this week, so...”
Sri added, “and from a product and design standpoint, we have iterated on a few concepts and will be gathering initial user feedback on the concepts next week. I’ll show them to you in a minute,” she said.
Surabhi was the primary consumer of this review. This biweekly meeting was to help her understand the progress made and for the team to seek her help.
“Early days, I guess,” she said, “Sandeep, I think the velocity aspect is fine, but regarding people being unavailable, can we do something to speed that up?”
Sandeep kept thinking. “Because I think such things will happen often and your team doesn’t have enough capacity to handle such things,” she said. She was not rebuking or taunting in her tone, just sharing a genuine doubt she had. She was speaking from her experience of many years.
“Hm, I think the team is well equipped to handle this. Just that this was one specific case where we couldn’t do much. The team has clear instructions that for longer times off, they should intimate us in advance to avoid any delays,” Sandeep said after a few seconds. Surabhi’s face remained blank on hearing the answer.
The conference room now felt warm to Sandeep. He rubbed his hands against one another and looked at others in the room.
“All I’m saying is, if you need more people on the team, please ask,” Surabhi said.
“No, no, we are good. Don’t worry, Surabhi, we’ll deliver on time.” Sandeep was instantaneous in responding. “Anyone else has other questions?”
Hearing no other question, he continued with his presentation, which delved into the details of the technical architecture, the user experience, and everything else. The meeting went on for almost an hour before Sandeep exited the room.
His palms were sweating. He was smiling at people around him but knew that the review had not gone very well. Though the teams had made some progress, it was about 60% of what was expected of them. And he had no good reason that explained it. Surabhi would not heed such things in the future, so it was important that he got the team to focus on the milestones.
“Hey, Sandeep,” Derek smiled at him as he walked past, “how’s the baby doing?”
Wait, what? How did Derek know? Sandeep had told no one in the office. Sandeep’s face grew red and heat emanated from his eyes and ears.
“How did you...” he stopped.
Derek sensed the awkwardness. “Yeah, look at this. You must be 4 months pregnant at this point. Look at that nice, tyre-like belly of yours,” he said.
Sandeep heaved a sigh of relief. His wife’s belly was also showing a slight bulge now.
He laughed out so loudly, that Derek felt awkward. “Chalo, I'll leave,” he said and continued walking.
Sandeep came back to his desk. The smile on his face faded away. He had a message from Sri asking him to speed things up with the team. Their current velocity wasn’t palatable in the long run. If they were delayed so much in the first week; chances were; they were going to miss many more milestones.
Sandeep started typing a reply to explain his position a few times but realized that he didn’t have anything. He had to accept that they were behind and continue to move on.
So, he sent a message to the entire team and called them for a meeting urgently. People left what they were working on behind, and came to the conference room Sandeep had called them to.
Within a few minutes, the entire team was here.
“So, I had our biweekly review just this morning. I wanted to share an update.” Everyone looked at Sandeep eagerly. “We have been asked to speed things up. Rightly so, because we are almost halfway behind. So…”
After moments of silence, Amita spoke, “so they’re saying we need to work more hours? Will we get overtime if we do so?”
“Naah, it’s only about doing what we promised to do. In our plan, we were supposed to do more by today than we have been able to. I think we all agreed on our plan, right?”
One of the attendees, a relatively elder software engineer, remarked, “But I think the team is already working at its seams. Last week we had some unexpected things come up, so that’s why...”
“Yeah, I do understand,” Sandeep said, rubbing his forehead, “but the leadership doesn’t. They have announced a launch date publicly. If we cannot do it, then the leadership will find a way to do it otherwise. Someone or the other will do it,” Sandeep concluded.
A few eyes became wide on hearing this, while others looked unperturbed. What had Sandeep just said? That if they continued to delay, they were going to be fired? Was he threatening the team? And how could the team possibly go fast when an unexpected issue comes up?
There were many questions from the team members, but no one spoke for seconds. It was finally back to the engineer, who looked pensive.
“So, if we don’t find a way to get back on track, are our jobs at stake?” the engineer asked.
“No, no, I didn’t mean to come off as threatening. I am merely inviting feedback from the team on how we can go faster. Let me know if I can do something to speed things up.”
But it was as if no one was listening. Sandeep’s one statement had turned everyone’s thoughts in a certain direction and it was difficult to bring them back together. People stayed silent.
“Please share your suggestions with me. You know where to find me,” he said as he exited the room.
Some folks stayed behind and continued to think, while others started leaving in a few minutes.
Sandeep came back to his desk and opened up the spreadsheet showing the timeline on a chart. He duplicated the spreadsheet and tried several combinations of altered timelines to figure out a way to bring things back on track. He switched team members and cut down some room they had left for additional, miscellaneous work that popped up.
But ultimately, the comment that Surabhi had made this morning continued to ring in his mind, “... and your team doesn’t have additional capacity to handle such things...”
He had someone tap on his shoulder. He turned around.
“Sandeep, can we talk for a moment?” It was Sri behind him, with an awkward smile on her face. Sandeep stood up from his seat. Sri took them to a conference room nearby and closed the door behind her.
“Did you tell the team that they will get fired if they don’t deliver?”
“Well, I didn’t mean to say that, Sri...”
“Whatever you meant has been misinterpreted. So, it is time for damage control. I would suggest apologizing right away. We need to build a culture that respects people above all. Our company chooses not to use fear as a motivator for work,” Sri said with an elevated tone.
“Sorry for the mistake, Sri, but I really didn’t mean to. I only want to find the best way to get us back on track,” she said.
“I understand where you’re coming from, Sandeep. But this is not the way. You need to be more thoughtful in what you say.”
Sandeep nodded and left the room. He looked like someone had used a vacuum cleaner on his face to suck out all the energy inside him. His shoulders were hanging down and his forehead lines had grown deeper. He had aged more than ten years in less than five weeks of being a manager.
He composed an apology letter to all the team members and invited them to an impromptu Samosa party later that evening. Good food was the answer to all conflicts, and when the food was tasty Samosas, the toughest of the conflicts could be resolved. Sandeep apologized tens of times and went to each team member to assuage their concerns. Judging by their reaction, it seemed to have settled.
Later that evening, as he was still playing with the planning spreadsheet, Surabhi’s comment rung in his mind again. With his current team set up, it was starting to feel like he was falling short by a couple of people in order to deliver the product on time. Also, in this case, with the high stakes the project had, it was better to have more people on the team than required rather than less. It wouldn’t hurt if he had a few more helping hands.
So he composed an email requesting three more people to Surabhi and copied Sri on it. Surabhi responded a few minutes later, writing just one word. Approved.
Sandeep realized that if he had just asked in the morning, he could have avoided the conflict later in the day. And he also realized that with the team morale low throughout the day, anyone would hardly have worked.
Another day lost to mind games.
It was time to free the team from such distractions.
Sandeep finally seems to be getting a hang of things. But the team is still behind their original plan by a huge margin. Will they be able to get back on track?
Let’s find out in the story next week. Subscribe now to receive it.
“Easy But Hard” is my experiment of writing a short-story collection in public. This allows me to get early feedback from an audience which helps refine the stories.
If you have any kind of feedback (good, bad, or even ugly), do reply and let me know 😊.
Thanks for reading :)